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Luscious in their edgy new hues, these are not your grandmother's hollyhocks

May 14, 2000|Susan Heeger

More than 100 years ago, American gardeners already considered hollyhocks old-fashioned, and loved them for it. Along picket fences, around kitchen doors, in the backgrounds of cottage plots, the tall flowers on their leaning stalks suggested simpler, sunnier times. Given their habit of self-seeding--scattering new plants in successive seasons--hollyhocks were also viewed by Victorians as a symbol of fertility.

Recalling their blooms in our grandmothers' gardens, we welcome the flowers nostalgically into our own. The types we choose, though, are often edgier, more up-to-date in their mystical hues--dark chocolates, rusty reds, almost-blacks--adding depth and intrigue to a flower border.

A winning member of the mallow family, native to Europe and Central Asia, Alcea rosea, as it's known botanically, is grown from seed or seedlings and can be treated as an annual or left in the ground until it fades. However, the blooms often fall prey to hollyhock rust, a disease that causes yellow leaf spots and is best fought by spraying healthy plants with fungicide. Another problem is pests: Snails, spider mites and Japanese beetles find the hollyhock irresistible.

Despite the vigilance it needs, nothing compares to the vibrancy of the hollyhock, from the cuplike single forms such as 'Indian Spring' to luscious doubles like 'Summer Carnival.' Give the hollyhock water, sun and plenty of food. Cut back flower stalks after the June bloom, and buds will appear again in early fall, drawing bees, butterflies and hummingbirds in droves.

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