Hollyhocks add a stately and romantic note to cottage-style plantings, always creating a spectacle in borders or alongside a wall or house.
They’re tall, fast-growing biennials or short-lived perennials, particularly if grown in poor, well-drained 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 2.4m (8ft) 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 A. ficifolia. Over time the various species have been hybridised to produce a range of colours. The most distinctive are Chater’s forms, developed by nurseryman William Chater in the 1860s, 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’ll flower in the first year. Or sow them now and grow them in pots, planting out in summer. Young plants are also available for planting out now. Hollyhocks thrive in full sun and 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 extra support.
One of the big drawbacks is rust disease, which progressively weakens the plant and disfigures its appearance with bright rusty-orange pustules. It tends to appear in the second year, which is why hollyhocks are usually grown as biennials or annuals and historically fell out of favour. Species such as A. ficifolia and A. rugosa and recent hybrids such as the Halo and Spotlight Series show some resistance and are the ones to grow.
Great hollyhock varieties to try
Tall upright species with deeply dissected lobed leaves. Pale yellow flowers in mid-summer. H: 1.8m (6ft). Some rust resistance. From: www.plant-world-seeds.com
A. rosea ‘Chater’s Double White’
Elegant variety, with upright stems with pure-white powder-puff flowers. Rounded leaves. H: 1.8m (6ft). From: www.crocus.co.uk
A. rosea ‘Halo Apricot’
Lovely variety with distinctive peach shade and darker eye. Some rust resistance. H: 1.5m (5ft). From: www.thebotanicnursery.co.uk
A. rosea Spotlight series ‘Mars Magic’
Vibrantly coloured variety recently introduced. Some rust resistance. H:1.5m (5ft). From: www.gardenbeauty.co.uk
A. rosea ‘Nigra’
Once of the darkest old varieties. Looks good when grown in contrast with lighter shades. H:1.8m (6ft). From: www.crocus.co.uk
Vigorous variety with rounded felted leaves. Pale lemon flowers. H: 1.8m (6ft). From: www.norfolkcottagegarden.co.uk