Outhouse Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
Despite her dramatic flower spikes, the sweet and stately hollyhock will never be crowned the queen of the garden. The truth is that the hollyhock is easy to grow and everybody's had her, making her a rather common girl. In no way am I slighting this cottage beauty, she's a required staple in the garden if you ask me. In the plant world "common" equals strong, reliable, and fertile. Common is good, so let it go.
Eons ago (like the 16th century) Europeans visited China and returned with -- among other fabulous flora -- hollyhock seeds. The hollyhock made her way to America via European settlers and she quickly became the girl-next-door; sweet, unassuming, and trustworthy.
Hollyhock's 5’-9’ foot flower spikes blossom in white, yellow, light pink, pinkish-red, burgundy, magenta, and black (okay, deep burgundy). They show up all summer and can be found in the classic single form or in layers of frilly doubles. Although newer varieties have been bred to flower their first year, heirloom hollyhocks are generally biennial plants. For the most part, during the first year they concentrate on growing leaves and a robust root system. On occasion, they might flower lightly that first year. Your true flowery reward will show up in the second year.
In my mild California climate, hollyhock is free to let her hair down and be who she really is -- a short-lived perennial. After their first season in my garden, they will flower every year for several years before they will give in and pass the torch to the next generation.
Hollyhocks will grow just about any place their seeds land. However, giving a nice spot of sun (or light shade) with deep, fertile, and well-draining soil will have her producing at her best. Seeds can be started in containers indoors, but do just as well when planted directly into the garden where they will live out their lives. Plant them outside a couple of weeks before the last frost about 24” apart. Hollyhock seeds need a little sunlight to germinate, so don’t cover them entirely with soil, just sprinkle lightly over the top. Kind of like you’re supposed to sprinkle parmesan cheese on your spaghetti (if you’re not me).
Water plants deeply and regularly; “regularly” will be defined by your particular climate. During the height of summer, I may water them twice a week or more. Soaker hoses and drip systems are your friend. Don’t use overhead sprinklers. Watering overhead encourages hollyhock enemy #1 – rust.
Rust is an ugly blight on a pretty face. Unattractiveness aside, rust is capable of taking down a plant if left to its own devices. Instead of chemical controls, I choose to manage it by watering at the roots of the plant, being careful not to splash on the leaves. When I see the smallest sign of rust (orange-brown spots) on the plant, I immediately remove the affected leaves.
Feed them every two to three weeks with an organic fertilizer that focuses on flowering plants (lots of phosphorus). Look for fertilizers that have a higher “middle” number on the bag. For example; 15-30-15. Top dress garden soil regularly with compost.
Hollyhocks are enthusiastic self-seeders and produce a boatload of discus-shaped seeds. Historically, hollyhocks have been associated with fertility and wealth. This may be true, but reputations are fickle and the hollyhock is better known for perhaps a more basic human need -- the bathroom. Or more specifically, the outhouse.
Before the luxury of indoor plumbing, hollyhocks were planted around the outhouse so that when a lady visitor felt nature's call, she wouldn't have to be so crass as to ask someone to point her in the right direction. Tall, colorful spikes would be there like a prim guide waving her over to the potty place. Others say the flowers were planted around the perimeter to hide the smelly little building. In any case, we now associate hollyhocks with women looking around frantically for somewhere to pee.
*Excerpt from Growing Heirloom Flowers (Cool Springs Press)