Photographs by Sabina Rüber

Alcea rosea Creme de Cassis

'Creme de Cassis'

Alcea rosea Halo Apricot

'Halo Apricot'

Alcea ficifolia

Alcea ficifolia

Alcea rosea Black Knight

'Black Knight'

No cottage garden would be complete without a bright, blowsy hollyhock or two. Introduced to Britain in the 16th century, the common hollyhock, Alcea rosea has been popular ever since, and is easily grown from seed to produce sturdy, statuesque perennial plants that can be seen peeping over many a garden wall during the summer months. Other species such as the pale yellow A. rugosa and the fig-leaved A. ficifolia are equally garden-worthy, but not as commonly grown. 

There are plenty of varieties to fit in with different colour schemes, from darkest, plummy-purple to pale pink, lemon yellow and creamy white, and the flowers can be single or double. The ‘Halo’ seed mixtures are lovely, with single flowers in a range of pastel colours that have a central darker eye, and they are also available in single colours. ‘Halo Apricot’ is particularly lovely, as well as ‘Halo White’, which has a yellowy-green eye, or ‘Halo Cream’ with a magenta eye. ‘Black Knight’ is one of my favourites, with glossy, almost black flowers that stand out beautifully against a pale wall or fence. 

Sow hollyhock seed under cover in early spring, or direct in late summer or early autumn. If you’re sowing under cover, sow the large seeds into individual modules, germinating them at a temperature of 16-18C before potting them on throughout the growing season. You can either plant them out in the summer (they may not flower in the first year) or keep potting them on, over-wintering them in a cold frame before planting them out the following spring. Hollyhocks need an open, sunny spot where they can stretch upwards towards the light. Generally unfussy about the soil they grow in, they often seed themselves in the most unpromising places, in cracks between paving or at the base of a wall. The only thing they really object to is being waterlogged, so make sure your soil is well-drained. Rust spots on the leaves are a common problem. To avoid, choose A. ficifolia, which doesn't seem to be as susceptible. 

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