Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.
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An old-fashioned favorite, the large white, pink and purple funnel-shaped blooms of hollyhocks (alcea rosea) can be seen in gardens throughout Routt County this summer. Towering as high as 8 feet tall, these spires of crepe-like blooms can grow in most any soil, including our clay and are considered a Zone 2 to 8 plant. (Most Routt County gardens are categorized as Zone 4, meaning our average low temperature never goes below minus 30 degrees.)
Although the plant is rather short-lived — some are annuals, some biennials and a few are perennials — they self-seed prolifically making it seem as though they are hardy perennials. Even the perennial versions of hollyhocks only live two to three years, but life can be prolonged a bit if you prune the plant after the flowering is done and before seeds are formed.
They are very easy to grow from seed and seem to grow best when the seeds are planted shallowly in the fall just before snowfall. I don't prune my hollyhocks and just let the seeds fall to the ground following the bloom period; the next spring, lots of new hollyhocks sprout on the berm where I've placed them.
The large flowers grow on tall spires that generally don't need staking, unless you have them in a really windy, unprotected area. Here in Routt County, this plant blooms from mid-summer into the fall. The blooms are unusual in that the flowers open from the bottom of the stalk up to the top.
This plant loves full sun but can handle partial shade and doesn't need much watering at all. In my garden, the only moisture these plants receive is that which falls from the sky and springtime snowmelt. It's one of the prettiest beds in my garden right now.
Hummingbirds, bees and butterflies love this plant, flitting from bloom to bloom enjoying the nectar.
A native to southern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia and related to the tropical hibiscus, hollyhocks are members of the Mallow family (Malvaceae). In Japan, the hollyhock flower was part of the official seal of the military government in the 1600s through the late 1800s, and today still is important in Japanese culture.
Hollyhocks don't have many problems with disease or pests but can be susceptible to rust, a fungi that can discolor the plant. Some fungicides can control this disease, and you can help manage it by removing the affected foliage and keeping the plant in well-drained soil.
There are at least 60 species of hollyhocks featuring single and double flower blooms in colors ranging from a pure white through a deep, almost black, purple color.
These old-fashioned plants add a touch of old world charm to your garden and look beautiful when planted next to a fence or wall and add a pretty backdrop at the rear of a garden area.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 or email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.