Hollyhocks are tall, showy flowering plants in the mallow family which are used in gardens all over the world, particularly to provide depth and texture to an old fashioned garden. They come in annual, semi-annual, and perennial varieties, depending on the species, and will readily reseed, sometimes appearing in strange places and being mistaken for flowering weeds. When hollyhocks are growing in conditions that they enjoy, the plants will achieve impressive heights and put out a profusion of flowers in colors such as purple, pink, white, red, and yellow. The most popular cultivar is Alcea rosea, although there are over 60 species in the Alcea genus.
The flowers appear to be native to Asia, although they have been cultivated in Europe for centuries. The name “hollyhock” has been used to refer to the flowers in England since the 13th century, although it was originally spelled holihoc, a portmanteau of holi, for holy, and hoc, for mallow. The plant was also referred to as St. Cuthbert's Cole, suggesting that it may have been included in religious gardens such as those at churches and monasteries.
In Asia, hollyhocks appear in artwork from both China and Japan, and are closely associated with the Tokugawa Shogunate, which used the hollyhock in its seal. Hollyhocks were probably brought from Asia to the Middle East by traders, and began appearing in parts of the Middle East by the 11th century. European visitors brought the flowers back with them around this period, and hollyhock seeds were also included in the cargo on early ships to the Americas.
Gardeners grow hollyhocks from seed and seedlings, and many set aside hollyhock seeds to grow in the following year. The flowers prefer full sun and well-drained soil, with infrequent, deep waterings, and they should be grown with a little bit of space so that the stalks do not interfere with each other. Hollyhocks grow in USDA Zones four through 10, and they are relatively hardy, although they are susceptible to fungal infections. To avoid infection, check the hollyhocks regularly, and do not water them in the evening, as this puts plants at risk for fungus infestation.
In old fashioned gardens, hollyhocks are often used to provide a tall wall of color in the back of a bed. Many gardeners also plant hollyhocks close to fences and other divisions in the garden, to soften the transition, and hollyhocks also complement wildflower gardens. Because hollyhocks readily reseed, care should be taken when planting them around less vigorous species, as the hollyhocks can choke out smaller plants.