Hollyhock

Their period charm will bring cottage-style beauty to borders.

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Beloved by gardeners for centuries, hollyhocks add a stately and romantic note to cottage-style plantings, always creating a spectacle in borders or in narrow spaces alongside a wall or house. They are tall, fast-growing biennials or short-lived perennials, particularly if grown in poor soil.

Members of the mallow family, hollyhocks, or Alcea, come from Asia and Europe, producing spires of flowers from a single or cluster of stems, often topping eight feet or more, with vigorous species and hybrids.

The common pink or red-flowered hollyhock, Alcea rosea, found its way from China around 1575, soon spreading around Europe, as did the Siberian pale-yellow fig-leaved, or Antwerp hollyhock, A. ficifolia. Over time the various species have been variously hybridised to produce a range of colourful varieties. The most distinctive are Chater’s forms, developed by Victorian nurseryman William Chater in the 1860s and 70s, with double petals in a range of vibrant and pastel tones, including an enchanting white.   

Hollyhocks are easily raised from seed and if sown early in January or February with a little warmth, they will flower in the first year. Failing that, sow them in spring and grow on in pots, planting out in summer. Young plants are also currently available for planting out now. Hollyhocks thrive in full sun and in most soils, as long as not wet. Although their questing tap root enables them to exploit moisture at depth, it makes them difficult to transplant once established. In windy sites provide additional support, particularly when in flower.

One of the big drawbacks of hollyhocks is rust disease, which first appeared in the 1870s and progressively weakens the plant and disfigures its appearance with bright rusty-orange pustules. It tends to appear in the second year, steadily worsening year by year, which is why hollyhocks are usually grown as biennials or even annuals and historically fell out of favour.  

Thankfully, species such as A. ficifolia and A. rugosa and recent hybrids, such as Thompson and Morgan’s Halo Series and Spotlight Series from German breeder Jelitto show some resistance and are the ones to grow.