There was frost on the rooftops this morning, which is typical here for early spring, when the air is pulled back and forth between the lingering cold of winter and the increasing warmth of progressing spring. It is time to begin planting seeds indoors, to later move into the garden when the arc of the sun is higher in the sky and the earth becomes warm enough for the young seedlings.
Today I planted some Russian hollyhock seeds (Alcea rugosa/Alcea taurica/Alcea novopokroskiy). They are said to be from the Crimean and Caucasus regions, and they do quite well in my area (zone 8b, which has an average extreme winter temperature of 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit/9.4-6.7 Centigrade). I grew them years ago, but lost them when I moved from a place with a garden space to one without — and I really felt the change. Now that I am happily gardening again, I want them back.
Russian hollyhocks do not grow as tall as some hollyhocks and hybrids, usually between about three to five feet. The flowers are a cheery light yellow, and also — unlike the hollyhocks one commonly finds in plant nurseries (Alcea rosea)– they are perennial, coming back faithfully each year.
And — this is very important — Russian hollyhocks are free of the fungal “rust” disease (Phragmidium) that plagues the Alcea rosea hollyhocks — those with which most people are familiar.
For those wanting hollyhocks that are free of rust but offer more in color variety than Russian hollyhocks, there is fortunately another kind that is easy to grow and has a bright range of colors — the Fig-leaved/Figleaf hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia), said to have originated in Siberia. Its leaves are shaped rather like those of a fig, with toothed edges instead of the more rounded leaves of Alcea rosea. And — oh joy! — it is rust-resistant. Sometimes called the “Antwerp” hollyhock, you may find seeds of it also under the name “Happy Lights.”
Hollyhocks are one of the old traditional garden flowers, and their blooming spires offer a strong and welcome height variation in gardens afflicted with that “flat” look — with all plants on the same level.
And speaking of the “flat” look, you have perhaps noticed — as I have — that taller perennials seem to be disappearing from the selections of plants in many nurseries. The reason, of course, is that it is easier for growers to pack more plants into less space if they are quite short. And so increasingly it is becoming harder and harder to find varieties of plants that are not “dwarf” varieties. This benefits the commercial growers, not the home garden. And you may also have noticed a decline in the range of flower seeds offered in nurseries and plant shops. Some things that were once quite common have now become a challenge to find. Following the pattern of modern society, there seems to be an effort to limit and standardize the variety of seeds available. And perhaps you have also noticed that seeds are much more expensive than they were just a few years ago.
The rising cost of seeds and the difficulty of finding some kinds of flowers in seed form is a good reason for saving the seeds from your own garden each year, rather than assuming you will be able to replace them from garden shops the next growing season. You may be disappointed.
But back to hollyhocks. If you like the “old-fashioned” look to a garden, there is nothing that achieves it quite as well as adding a few hollyhocks. Now you know that you can grow them without fearing rust, if you select the right kinds, and it is easy to save the seed of your favorites (and hollyhocks produce prolific seeds at the end of their growing season).
This year I am also planting a kind new to me — the Turkish hollyhock (Alcea pallida). It grows from Greece and Turkey into the Balkans. From the photos, it appears to be a very pale rose color, with a more “wild” look to it. I don’t have great expectations of it, but one never knows until a plant flowers in one’s own garden.