HOLLYHOCKS have been amazing this summer.
My reddish black flowered plants which self-sowed last year began blooming in early December and are setting seed as I write. I also have an airy, 2.5 metre tall cluster of magnificent hollyhocks that includes pink, white and delicate mauve flowers, some with fig-shaped leaves, grown from hand-raised seedlings kindly given to me by a friend.
All are mercifully rust-free, a miracle considering the wet season. Hollyhocks are splendid in a large country garden as they fill so much space and bloom for weeks. Up to a dozen towering stems emerge from each tough, woody rootstock and fan out over two to three square metres.
Yet my favourite hollyhock moment was when I saw them flowering in extremely confined conditions, in the narrow, cobbled streets behind the canals in central Amsterdam, where householders grow them alongside their entrance doors. It's worth visiting Amsterdam in July for this reason alone.
Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) belong to the Mallow family and their large (7-10cm diameter) flowers occur as singles, semi-doubles and fully double pompoms, in a colour range that like that of the rose includes red, yellow and white but no blue. Each sturdy stalk carries three to four dozen buds, flowering upwards from the base - the Dutch name "stokroos" means literally "rose on a stick".
They are native across Asia from Turkey to China and have been much loved European cottage garden flowers since at least the 15th century. My black A.r. 'Nigra' was described in 1629 and 'Chater's Doubles' were developed in the 1880s and remain hugely popular.
Dutch artist Jan van Huysum's early 18th century painting Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase (National Gallery, London) includes a soft pink, semi-double hollyhock among white poppies, orange African marigolds, sunflowers, violas and a vivid blue convolvulus.
Hollyhocks are host to the painted lady butterfly, common in Australian gardens; they also attract pollinating birds and bees.
A spell of cold weather to trigger flower and seed formation is the key to raising these lovely flowers successfully from seed. They are classified as biennial, though this description is confusing for southern hemisphere gardeners as it implies that the plants take two years to mature. This is correct in the northern hemisphere, where biennials are sown in late summer in order to overwinter before maturing the following year. But Down Under our winter occurs mid-year, meaning biennials sown in late summer will flower later the same year.
Winter cold is the thing. The plants grow leaves before a cold spell and fruit and die after it.Hollyhock seeds are big enough to sow in individual punnets. Plant out when the leafy rosettes have developed. They are frost hardy but need watering in dry periods.
Other biennials include foxgloves, campion (Lychnis coronaria) and verbascums. Cauliflowers and broccoli are biennial and need to be sown soon in colder parts of NSW for their flower buds, which are the part we eat, to jump into action during a warm spell in late winter.
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