There are lots of signs that summer has arrived—children get out of school, otherwise normal men get out of regular clothes and into lime green golf pants, and, in many gardens, the weeds get out of hand.
To me summer means hollyhocks. Flower fads come and go like UFO sitings, but hollyhocks, those tall, lanky members of the mallow family, remain popular.
In Old English “hock” is synonymous with “mallow”. The mallow plants that returned from the Middle East with the Crusaders were called “holy” or “holly” hocks.Whatever the name, the plants and their bright flowers were a hit in the color-starved Middle Ages.
In America, the common hollyhock (Alcea rosea) could easily claim membership in the D.A.R., having arrived with the colonists. As almost everyone knows, Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello. As a few people know, Celia Thaxter, late 19th century gardener and poet, grew them in her famed beds on Appledore Island, off the New Hampshire coast, where they were immortalized by American Impressionist painter Childe Hassam.
Seeds and plants have been available from catalog vendors since the advent of mail order. As I recall, a couple of years ago, both White Flower Farm, Wayside Gardens, and the venerable English firm Thompson & Morgan all featured hollyhock cultivars on catalog covers.
Hollyhocks were the first plants that I grew as a child, mostly because there was a small stand of them established in our backyard, and the seeds were easy to collect and sow. I did not know at the time that common hollyhocks are biennial, producing vegetative growth the first year after they are planted and flowers in the second year.
Fortunately, the plants in our backyard did what hollyhocks do best—self-seeding—and we had flowers every year. Our hollyhocks were the single variety, with white blossoms marked by dark red “eyes”. I watered them religiously, but otherwise, the hollyhocks grew unattended in a rather exposed spot just behind the sandbox. One year a rabbit made her nest between the roots of the biggest plant, undoubtedly amending the soil regularly with organic material.
My current garden is home to two different species, fig-leaf hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia) and the common variety. I hasten to add that I inherited my plants from the previous owner, who did not live here long enough to see them bloom. The common hollyhocks, leaning artistically against the unpainted back fence, are pink doubles. The blossoms remind me of the tissue flowers that we used to make on rainy days when I was a child.
The less common fig-leaf variety stands on the opposite side of my upper garden, in front of one of the lattice-work panels that camouflages the understructure supporting my back porch. It is just now producing medium size blossoms in a wonderful shade of pale yellow. Every time I look at my Alcea ficifolia I renew my belief in serendipity. I have wanted one for years, and somehow never got around to ordering it from the catalogs. Now I feel as if I have gotten the proverbial free lunch.
The problem with all the hollyhocks is that their stems and foliage are, to put it frankly, rather ugly. The leaves, whether they are rounded or incised, are large and coarse. The stems are tall and hairy. To add bad to worse, the plants are susceptible to hollyhock rust, which makes rusty brown splotches on the leaves. To my knowledge, no hybridizer has been able to come up with a more elegant looking plant.
Perhaps that is just as well. After all, hollyhocks in the country don’t have to worry about elegance. There is a patch of common hollyhock growing by an old garage near our summer cottage. These plants have been self-seeding for generations and are the main adornment to a ramshackle property that has been for sale for at least 25 years. The blossoms provide so much relief to the eye, that nobody even notices the ugly leaves.
In city gardens, you can plant things in front of hollyhocks, such as coreopsis or lady’s mantle or even big pots of red geraniums to cover up those less-than-perfect legs. After the plants have bloomed, wait until the seed pods dry out, then collect the seeds, or if you are lazy, let them self-sow. Afterwards, cut down the stalks. With hollyhocks as with life, you can emphasize the beauty and minimize the ugliness if you just make a little effort.