Dad used to call hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) “garbage can flowers,” and that was the first name I associated with the plant.
Don’t get me wrong: My father loved hollyhocks. He grew them at the back of the garden in our large backyard, and every now and then I’d see him lingering among the stand of tall flowers, musing.
Name: Alcea rosea (sometimes listed as Althaea)
Common name: Hollyhock
Hardiness: Zones 2 to 10
Mature height: Upwards of 6 to 8 feet
Mature spread: 1 to 2 feet
Classification: Herbaceous perennial
Landscape use: Back of the border or mixed perennial garden; add lively color to fences and walls
Ornamental characteristics: Very tall, sturdy, erect stalks support colorful, showy blooms reminiscent of those found in cottage gardens; flowers often have slightly ruffled margins and a distinct eye; some varieties produce double flowers
To my father, the term “garbage can flowers” was not a dismissal. He didn’t mean to criticize, nor did he mean that they are worthy of disposal. The name comes from childhood memories: His small family moved very often in the 1920s and early 30s, and at nearly every new home, he found hollyhocks growing in the alleyway, back among the garbage cans. They were a sign of welcome to yet another new neighborhood; they came to represent a touch of beauty in an unknown locale and a bit of continuity in his rather nomadic young life.
This tall, English-garden style perennial is an old-fashioned favorite and is ridiculously easy to grow. Although reported to be hardy in zones 2 to 10 – a pretty broad range – it can be short lived in some areas and so is often referred to as a biennal plant. It readily self-seeds, however, and a stand of Alcea rosea planted in late summer to early fall during one year will not only produce blooms the following year, it will begin to spread and thus virtually guarantee further years of flowering. I can’t remember a year in my family’s home – which stood for 60-some years before we sold – without a few hollyhocks sprouting up at the back of the garden. They never proved to be aggressive and did not threaten nearby plants.
Hollyhock grows well in average soil that’s well drained, but it tolerates a variety of soil types and conditions, with the exception of very wet winter soil. Full sun is preferred, and the few plants that managed to emerge in the light shade of our maples were rather stunted. Given optimal conditions, individual plants can reach up to 8 feet tall with a spread of about 2 feet.
Strong, erect stalks sport large, medium-green, heart-shaped leaves that are large at the base of the plant and become progressively smaller near the top. Lower leaves tend to be roughly textured.
Flowers enjoy a long bloom season, generally lasting from June through August or later in some regions. Hollyhock is a member of Malvaceae, and the blooms are a sure indicator of the mallow relation. When fully open, flowers can span 3 to 5 inches; each has five overlapping petals and five sepals. Colors range from whitish to yellow and light pink to deep red, with a rainbow of hues possible when seed is mixed.
Hollyhock is subject to a few pests, including Japanese beetle and spider mites, and foliage may lose its vigor and become a bit tattered from rust, leaf spot and anthracnose.
Conversely, the blooms attract pollinators, including butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.
There’s some discussion about whether hollyhock is to be considered invasive because of its tendency to self-seed. Some sources list it as invasive in the Midwest – Indiana and eastern Illinois, in particular – while others claim that it is well-behaved and may even fail to persist in areas where it has escaped cultivation. As always, check with local sources before planting to determine the likelihood of aggressiveness. If in doubt, consider a few of the cultivars, such as ‘Polarstar’ or ‘Blacknight’.
Alcea rosea is a lovely, versatile plant that is at home in locations as variable as ebullient English gardens and dry, sun-scorched Southwestern sites. Despite my family’s name for them, I wouldn’t suggest garbage cans – unless you’d like to camouflage the refuse area.