Plant of the day: Hollyhock – Alcea rosea

Particularly splendid this year are a fine group of towering hollyhocks that stand behind the rose pergola, by the back gate and scattered here and there through Culpeper. Apart from the pleasure they give to us with their statuesque presence and their engaging saucer flowers in lollipop pinks, reds and orange all the way up the stems, they are a gift for wildlife, providing a feast for bees and butterflies.

Although hollyhocks are a much loved, traditional feature of the cottage garden and the stuff of English country songs, their origins are quite exotic. A member of the mallow family, they are cousins of the hibiscus and in the same family as okra, cocoa and cotton. They are native to Central and Southwest Asia and China where the powdered roots of the wild form, Althaea officinalis, were used for medicinal purposes and they were recorded fin Greek medicine from the 9th century. The name ‘althaea’ (now ‘alcea’) comes form the Greek ‘altha’ - to cure. The 16th century name for them in England was the ‘Holy hock’ - ‘hock’ being the 16th century name for ‘mallow’ and ‘Holy’ because it was believed that the plants came from the Holy Land.

Hollyhocks are very easy to grow and thrive on neglect. They rarely need staking, are hardy and happy in poor soil. They like sunshine and cope well with drought. By contrast, they don’t do well in wet or soggy conditions and their one major drawback is that they are prone to rust - a fungus (Puccinia malvacearum) that shows as a a crop of rusty-coloured pustules on the leaves. Rust is difficult to get rid of but doesn’t do much actual damage to plants other than disfigure the leaves. You can slow down the spread by picking off affected individual leaves or you can hide the damage by keeping these tall plants towards the back of the plot. Either way, cut down to base after flowering (or self-seeding if you want to encourage a colony) and put the diseased leaves in the recycling bag for the council compost which will reach sufficient heat to kill the spores.

Hollyhocks are biennials. They put on green growth in the first season and flower in their second. They are a cinch to grow them yourself from seed. Either start them off at home in March or April or sow straight out in May for flowering the following year. The gardening centres are inclined to only sell the common hollyhock but there are many interesting varieties available to grow yourself from seed if they are your fancy. These include some rust-resistant varieties and others in interesting colours and shapes worth seeking out.

Caroline Foley