Hollyhocks: how to grow alcea
Hollyhocks are famously tall and pretty, and if you grow them as annuals, they should stay healthy and strong. Planstman John Hoyland is your guide on how to grow hollyhocks, while John and Becky Crowley both recommend their favourite cultivars. Photographs Torie Chugg and Annaïck Guitteny
British gardeners have grown the wild hollyhock, Alcea rosea, since the mid-16th century, when it arrived from China or western Asia. This species is part of the Malvaceae family, which includes other familiar garden plants such as Abutilon, Sidalcea and Hibiscus.
The colour of hollyhock flowers ranges from pure white to dark purple, and plant breeders have produced cultivars with double and semi-double flowers. They are naturally perennial but in the garden can be treated as biennial and, sometimes, as annual plants.
Some produce flowers in the first year after sowing, so can be used as annuals. These include Alcea rosea ‘Halo White’, which looks particularly dramatic when grown with the almost black cultivar Alcea rosea ‘Nigra’.
New hybrids are bringing the original toughness, stature and vibrancy into plants that are disease-free, so hopefully many more gardeners will rediscover the charms of hollyhocks.
What are hollyhocks and when do they flower?
Originating from China and western Asia, hollyhocks are cultivars of Alcea rosea, plus related species in the mallow family. Hollyhocks grow up to 2.5m tall, flower from July to late summer and attract bees and butterflies.
How to grow hollyhocks
Where to grow hollyhocks
In general the claim that a plant ‘will grow anywhere’ has to be treated lightly but Alcea and Althaea really are plants that will tolerate a wide range of growing conditions. At their best in fertile, well-drained soil in sunny positions, they will cope with shade and poor, heavy soil.
Plant in cottage garden schemes; at the back of borders; beneath sunny walls; with other self-seeding plants in gravel gardens and in naturalistic plantings.
How to grow hollyhocks from seed
Sow the seed of Alcea rosea cultivars in a patch of spare ground during the summer. At the beginning of autumn the seedlings should have three or four true leaves and can be transplanted to the spot where you want them to flower.
If you have a spare patch of ground, the seed can be sown directly. However, if your garden is full, as is likely the case in early summer, they can be sown into pots. Sow two seeds into peat-free compost in 7cm or 9cm pots, bumping them up into larger 1L pots if needed before space becomes available in the garden.
Problems with hollyhocks
All cultivars of Alcea rosea will, sooner or later, become covered in hollyhock rust, Puccinia malvacearum. This fungus is specific to plants in the Malvaceae family. Not only is it an eyesore but it also has a debilitating effect on the plant.
The traditional method of dealing with rust is to spray with a fungicide, beginning in May and continuing through the summer.
A more reasonable solution is to treat hollyhocks as annual or biennial plants, removing and burning the infested ones as soon as they have finished flowering. You will still get rust on your plants but it won’t completely disfigure them.
The best hollyhocks to grow
Alcea rosea ‘Mars Magic’
A ruby-red cultivar from the Spotlight Series, which was introduced by Jelitto Perennial Seeds in 2010. Out of all the hollyhocks in Jonathan’s collection, this is the one he recommends as the best bright red. It is a first-year flowering perennial. 1.8m x 60cm. RHS H5, USDA 2a-10b.
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This Turkish species, often referred to as Alcea pallida, is a particularly beautiful plant with lavender-pink flowers that have scalloped petals. It is considered to be very resistant to rust and self seeds generously. 1.8m x 75cm.
Alcea rosea ‘Lemon Light’
A strong-growing cultivar with blooms that are a soft shade of primrose yellow. It works well with A. rosea ‘Halo White’, which has white flowers with a pale-yellow centre that picks up on ‘Lemon Light’. 1.9m x 70cm.
Alcea rosea ‘Blackcurrant Whirl’
This is a beautiful bi-colour cultivar, similar in appearance to the better known and certainly more widely available A. rosea ‘Crème de Cassis’. It has white flowers with maroon centres and dark-veined petals. 1.8m x 60cm.
Alcea ficifolia ‘Las Vegas’
Alcea ficifolia ‘Las Vegas’
Bred by Jelitto, this seed mix produces flowers in a variety of colours, including chestnut brown, red, pink, yellow, copper and white. A little shorter than many other hollyhocks, but it is also possibly hardier. 1.6m x 60cm.
Alcea rosea Chater’s Double Group salmon-pink-flowered
Bred by William Chater in the mid 19th century, this apricot-flowered cultivar, and the similarly coloured, A. rosea Chater’s Double Group chamois, appeal to florists. The doubles can be slower growing to start with, but soon catch up. 1.8m x 60cm.
Alcea rosea ‘Arabian Nights’
Tall, dramatic stems of maroon flowers, so dark they appear almost black. Hollyhock flowers are edible and these look as beautiful on a plate as they do in the garden. 1.8m x 60cm. RHS H5, USDA 2a-10b.
Alcea rosea ‘Halo Peach’
The flowers of this cultivar from the bi-coloured Halo Series are a soft shade of peach with dark maroon centres. This is highly recommended by National Collection holder Jonathan Sheppard. 1.8m x 60cm.
Alcea rosea giant
This is the seed mix to choose if you want to achieve the quintessential cottage-garden look in a full array of colours from pale pink to maroon. Vigorous, strong-growing plants. 2.4m x 60-80cm.
The marsh mallow is a British native that grows to about 90cm tall. The tough foliage is grey and velvety and in August the plant is covered with small pale pink, almost white, flowers.
Despite its name, its foliage is only vaguely reminiscent of cannabis. Its flowers, pale pink with a raspberry centre, are like miniature hollyhocks, held on wiry stems up to 2m tall.
Alcea rosea ‘crème de cassis’
This flamboyant cultivar bears large flowers, 7.5cm wide, from June to August. Unusually, flowers may be both single and double on the same plant. 2m tall.
Alcea rosea ‘nigra’
Although known as the black hollyhock, its flowers are actually deep purple. It is worth buying new seed each year rather than collecting your own from this plant as home-collected seed tends to produce pale imitations of the true form. 2m tall.
The 2m-tall stems are covered with small flowers from late summer to autumn. Impressive both at the back of a border and as a veil to look through to other plants.
x Alcalthaea suffrutescens ‘parkrondell’
One of a new breed of hollyhocks bred in Hungary. It grows to 2m tall and has grey, velvety foliage that makes the plant attractive even before it starts to flower.
Alcea rosea ‘Halo white’
Produces flowers in its first year after sowing, so is one of the cultivars that can be used as an annual. It looks dramatic when grown with the almost-black Alcea rosea ‘Nigra’. 2.5m tall.
Alcea rosea Chater’s Double Group white-flowered
The neat pom-pom flowers grow so densely that the stem seems to disappear as the flowers open. Grows to a height of 2m.
A long-lived perennial hollyhock that will grow in shade as well as sun. The flower’s petals are almost translucent. Shorter than most hollyhocks, growing to about 1.5m tall.
x Alcalthaea suffrutescens ‘Parkallee’
Much more rust-resistant than perennial hollyhocks, this is a sub-shrub that produces new shoots each spring from the base of the previous year’s stems. The flowers appear along the length of its 2m tall stems.
Alcea ‘Sheppard’s Delight’
Not available to buy just yet but hopefully will be in the years to come. The unusual salmon-pink semi-double blooms are from a self-seeded plant in Jonathan’s garden, and he’s now working to isolate the flowers and save seed. 2m x 1m.
This white-flowered species from Afghanistan to China is similar in appearance and growth habit to Alcea rosea. It is rare in cultivation but I think the simple, pure-white flowers make it an elegant addition to the garden. 1.5m x 40cm.
Commonly known as the fig-leaved hollyhock thanks to its palmate leaves, which resemble those of fig plants, Alcea ficifolia originates in Iran and is a strong, healthy species. 2m x 60cm.
Alcea rosea ‘Simplex’
If you’re looking for a seed mix in soft, pastel colours, this is a great option to go for. Technically a short-lived perennial, its flowers come in more muted shades of pink, yellow, rose and red as well as white. 1.8m x 60cm.
Where to buy hollyhock seeds
Chiltern Seeds. Tel 01229 581137, chilternseeds.co.uk
Nicky’s Nursery. Tel 01843 600972, nickys-nursery.co.uk
Thompson & Morgan, tel 0844 2485383, thompson-morgan.com
Where to buy hollyhock plants
Cotswold Garden Flowers, Sands Lane, Badsey, Worcestershire WR11 7EZ. Tel 01386 422829, cgf.net
Elizabeth MacGregor, Ellenbank, Tongland Road, Kirkcudbright DG6 4UU. Tel 01557 330620, elizabethmacgregornursery.co.uk
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