Hollyhock (Alcea rosea) is an old friend to many of us. It is a member of the hibiscus family and closely related to cotton and okra. These biennial or short lived perennial plants are tall and upright and most people remember them from grandma's house next to the barn. Actually, our librarian and outreach coordinator, Pam Mayer, remembers her father calling them "outhouse flowers." Hollyhocks, like Rodney Dangerfield, don't get the respect they deserve!
The large and lovely blossoms grow from large prominent buds borne singly up the stem. Each bloom remains open three or four days during late spring and early summer. As the four-week long blooming season progresses, the bloom front advances towards the top of the leafless stems.
Vickie Baumer, a graduate student working at the Missouri State Fruit Experiment this summer, told me that children can make little dolls out of the flowers by clipping connecting an unopened bud for the head and an upside-down flower for the dress. Hollyhock doll dresses come in pink, purple, yellow, white and even black. Single-flowered hollyhock blooms are to 3 inches across and have a protruding stamen column typical in the hibiscus family. The flowers produce large quantities of seed in round, flattened capsules. Double flowering types that look like pom-pom shower scrubbers are also available.
A native of Asia, the single flowered type was brought to England by the Crusaders during the middle ages. The Anglo-Saxon name for mallow, a related European species used for medicine, was "hoc." The name "hollyhock" developed from the original "holy hoc" brought home from the Holy Wars. Later, during the 1800s, the hollyhock became a favorite in Victorian gardens.
Even though hollyhocks are prone to problems such as rust, leaf spot, anthracnose, spider mites and Japanese beetles, they are easy to grow in sunny sites with fertile soil. Plants started in pots in the winter will flower the first season, but those that are sown outdoors in midsummer will flower the following spring. Individual plants may only live two years, but they will re-seed readily. Hollyhocks are tall and may require staking where they are not protected by a building or fence.
So show these lovely, old fashioned "outhouse" flowers a little respect. They can brighten up a cottage garden or perennial border as well as frame and anchor an out building or cottage and are absolutely beautiful in the right setting.