Eighty years later, my father still remembers hollyhocks in his grandmother's garden, now long gone. Tall, fuzzy stalks with bright blossoms and large, palm-shaped leaves towered ten feet tall, or at least they seemed that high. The ruffled flowers had wide, cherry-red petals and sunny yellow pistils that beckoned every bumblebee and butterfly that passed.
Even those who grew up without a grandmother's garden might remember Peter Rabbit's hollyhock patches or “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” nursery-rhyme illustrations. Nodding wands of hollyhocks have lined paths, guarded secret gardens, screened neighbors' views and adorned sides of barns for a long time.
Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are members of the Malvaceae, or mallow, family. While other members of the mallow family, like marsh mallow, are grown specifically for their culinary or medicinal qualities, garden hollyhocks are usually grown simply for their cottage-garden charm.
Like their medicinal cousins, all parts of garden hollyhocks are edible. The petals make a mild addition to a salad or a colorful garnish.
Keep dogs away from hollyhocks, however. I have read several reports of dogs occasionally digging up and eating hollyhock roots with resulting trips to the vet. These are anecdotal tales, but worth paying attention to.
Hollyhocks are easy to grow, although many varieties are biennial and take two years from seed to flower. Some bloom the first year if planted early enough, and other varieties are considered to be short-lived perennials. Cut them to the ground after they flower, continue to water and feed them, and they will often bloom once or twice more that season. Cut again at the end of the season and they should come back for several more years.
Hollyhocks often self-sow, producing a legion of volunteers the following year. Whichever type of hollyhock you choose, August and September are good months to plant from seed or to transplant seedlings.
Hollyhocks are not fussy and survive in many spots but do best in soil that has been amended with compost. They do not like dry soil. With adequate moisture and good drainage, hollyhocks can thrive in full sun or partial shade. Try them in a few different spots in your yard and see where they are happiest.
Hollyhocks typically grow five to six feet tall, although shorter varieties like the Celebrity, Queeny or Majorette series reach only about three feet tall. Consequently, these latter types can be grown in small beds or even containers. Some towering varieties can reach ten feet and are hummingbird heliports in colors ranging from lemon yellow, apricot and blush pink to almost black. They can reach halfway up a barn wall.
For fall planting, prepare a bed, mixing in plenty of compost and leaf mold. These amendments provide nutrition for what will become a large plant and also help your soil retain moisture.
If you buy hollyhocks at the nursery, transplant carefully, trying not to disturb the roots. Starting from seed gives you more choice. Swallowtail Garden Seeds has a good selection on its website.
Start hollyhock seeds in two-inch cell packs or pots, indoors or outdoors. Transplant when seedlings are a few inches high. Alternatively, sow seeds directly where you want them to grow, in the nice, cushy beds you prepared. If direct planting, sow groups of three or four seeds, two to three feet apart, depending on how large a variety you are planting. Press seeds into the soil and cover lightly with soil, if at all.
When seedlings are up and established, thin each group to one plant so it has room to grow. Good air circulation discourages rust and mildew, which can infect hollyhocks in moist, crowded settings. If your plants develop these ailments, carefully clip away the damaged leaves and throw them away. Always water hollyhocks from below; keeping their leaves dry can help keep rust and mildew at bay.
Hollyhocks flower on the top one and one-half to two feet of their stalk, with blossoms opening from the bottom to the top. To collect seed, wait until the petals have fallen and the flat, blackish seeds have formed. Hollyhocks are open pollinated and will usually come true from seed, although wonderful variations can always surprise you the following year.
Tree Walk: Join U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County for a free guided tree walk through Fuller Park in Napa on Monday, September 12, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Registration is recommended as space is limited. Meet at Fuller Park, corner of Jefferson and Oak Streets. Online registration or call 707-253-4221. Trees to Know in Napa Valley will be available for $15. Cash or check payable to UC Regents. Sorry, we are unable to process credit cards.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a workshop on “Growing Bulbs” on Saturday, September 17, from 10 a.m. to noon, at Mid-City Nursery, 3635 Broadway Street, American Canyon.Bulbs are among the easiest plants to grow and deliver a welcome dose of color and scent, often when the winter is dreary. Master Gardeners will showcase a variety of bulbs, rhizomes, corms, tubers and stolons. Learn how to plant for successive bloom; how to care for, store and divide bulbs; and how to force blooms and encourage rebloom. On-line registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (cash or check only).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.