In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
July, 2006
Regional Report

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These hollyhocks add a beautiful dimension to my vegetable garden every summer.

Hollyhock, An Old-Fashioned Favorite

I grew up making hollyhock dolls from my grandmother's hollyhocks. There was something special about the tissue-paper petals in soft pastel hues. And something grand about the 8-foot-tall flower spikes that give such tremendous stature and architecture to the perennial garden.

My grandmother referred to these old-fashioned favorites as biennials, yet they came up every year. I never gave the mechanics of these lovely plants a thought until I planted them at the edge of my vegetable garden a few years ago.

From Seed to Bloom
Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are true biennials, taking two years to complete a life cycle. A biennial plant spends the first year producing a sturdy elaborate root system with only a simple rosette of leaves aboveground. The leaves die back to the ground in winter, and the root system goes quietly to sleep. The following spring, the plant awakens to send up a flower stalk to produce blossoms and seeds. At the end of this second season, the plant usually dies, having completed the task of spreading its seeds.

In my vegetable garden, the hollyhocks bloom continually all summer, and begin scattering ripe seeds in midsummer. The seeds germinate and produce a family of seedlings all around the mother plants.
These seedlings get their first year's growth in late summer and fall, and then the following year send up blossom stalks.

Now that I have the cycle set up, I have plants blooming every year. I started with only maroon-flowered plants, but they freely cross-pollinate, giving me luscious tints and hues of pink, maroon, apricot, and white.

There is nothing quite like a hollyhock to add color to the back of a perennial border. Their large tropical leaves add substance, and the spires of crepe-paper blossoms in all hues of rose, red, pink, salmon and even darkest purple-black (my favorite) add unrivaled drama.

Hollyhocks thrive in full sun and average to poor soil, and basically take no care other than to enjoy the blooms. They do have a pesky bug that tends to turn the leaves to lace, but planting them in a situation with other plants to hide the lower part of the stalks works beautifully.


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