The garden’s oldest storytellers

Published 10:00 am Sunday, May 3, 2015

Yellow hollyhocks grow throughout my cottage gardens. Every year I am surprised at just where they will turn up. - Carol Hegel Lang/Albert Lea Tribune

Yellow hollyhocks grow throughout my cottage gardens. Every year I am surprised at just where they will turn up. – Carol Hegel Lang/Albert Lea Tribune

Serendipity Gardens by Carol Hegel Lang

Hollyhocks are probably the oldest storytellers in the garden. They bring me back so many memories from my childhood days in Iowa. My mother didn’t grow them in her garden, but a neighbor had them growing around the fence that kept their goats in. A small shed housed the goats and then a fence surrounded a grassy area where the goats spent most of their time.  Whether they planted hollyhocks to block the view of the goats or they just loved them I really don’t know.

Carol Hegel Lang

Carol Hegel Lang

Doesn’t everyone have some memories that relate to hollyhocks? We would make dolls out of the flowers. They were so cute and we had so much fun making them. My “kindred spirit” Peggy grew them in her garden along the fence that was at the back of her property and they made such a beautiful statement. A couple of years ago my cousin who lives in Texas sent me a pack of seeds a friend of hers that lived in southern Iowa had collected. They were from her gardens and sent them to cousin Diane. I think some of the seeds might have also come from the gardens of Diane’s parents.

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Last fall a cousin of my husband dropped by with a canister that held seeds from his hollyhocks. I will be planting them in my gardens this spring. I forgot to ask him if they are the annual or perennial variety, but he did tell me they were pink a color that I have wanted in my gardens. I have grown hollyhocks for years starting with a double variety that did not return after the first year. Then it was the yellow and black varieties that seemed to love my gardens.

Along the way I also had a lovely red variety that seemed to have died out after the first year or two. However, the black ones and yellow survived for years until I pulled all of the black ones and gave them to someone who really liked them. The black variety always seemed to grow along my gray fence and they didn’t stand out against it so when a gal asked for some, I gladly passed them along to her.

When I think of a cottage garden the first flower that pops into my mind would be hollyhocks standing tall with their lovely pastel colors. These tall beauties can grow up to eight feet tall so you probably want them towards the back of the garden although most of mine seem to come up towards the very front of the gardens. The flowers of hollyhocks open from the bottom to the top of the spike throughout the summer so you will always have them in bloom.

Hollyhocks are annual, biennial or perennial plants. They belong to the species of flowering plants in the mallow family Malvaceae and are native to Asia and Europe. They are easily grown from seed and will self-seed if you leave the blooms on the stalk to dry. The Alcea species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera including the painted lady.  The red variety welcome hummingbirds into your gardens.

Hollyhocks can be grown in full sun or partial shade, but they seem to bloom better in full sun.  They look lovely grown against a fence or wall that can also give them a little support. They like a rich, moist soil so it’s advisable to work plenty of compost or organic matter before you plant them. This will help the condition of the soil. Other recommendations include sowing seeds outdoors just beneath the soil one to two weeks before the last frost, watering during dry conditions to keep the flowers blooming, using organic fertilizer every few weeks will result in bigger blooms and when flowers fade, cutting stalks to the ground.

If you have a cottage garden perhaps you are already growing these lovely blooms, but if you don’t have them in your garden you might want to consider adding them this year. If you have grandchildren you will spend many hours making those adorable flower dolls from them and making memories with these precious children.

“Flowers have an expression of countenance as much as men or animals.  Some seem to smile; some had sad expressions; some are pensive and diffident; others again are plain, honest and upright, like the broad-faced sunflower and the hollyhock.”  — Henry Ward Beecher  


Carol Hegel Lang is a green thumb residing in Albert Lea. Her column appears weekly. Email her at