On a recent bike ride through Spokane’s West Central neighborhood we stopped to admire a beautiful display of hollyhocks. They stretched along an old, grayed, wood fence for nearly half a block.
As we admired them, Cheryle Menge emerged rather abruptly through the gate. “Oh, I have trouble with people breaking them off and I heard your voices.” When we told her we were admiring them, she lit up and started telling us about how many colors she had and the fact that her best ones were inside the fence.
A few days later I went back and we talked about her love affair with these tall, stately plants that were the mainstay of the old cottage gardens our grandmothers grew.
Her love affair started with a package of seeds from the General Store. They were only one color though. Pretty soon she was knocking on doors asking for seeds wherever she found a plant in a color she liked. She soon got the reputation as the hollyhock lady, and people started giving her seeds.
Now her backyard and street fence are full of plants of almost every imaginable color: pinks, reds, apricot, dark and light purple. Some are singles, others have ruffled double blooms. Her favorite is an almost black single flowering plant. “I keep that one in the backyard so people don’t break it and really try to save the seeds.”
Hollyhocks are not only pretty, they are tough. They thrive in hot, dry places and are often found around old houses or along alleys where they get little attention. They are biennials or short-lived perennials that grow their leaves the first year and send up a flower stalk the second. The flowers begin blooming from the bottom of the stalk and will bloom for several weeks. The seeds ripen and drop to the ground to start new plants. The old plant dies and the seeds that sprout carry on the color.
Cheryle doesn’t fuss over hers beyond a watering every few days and a dose of Miracle-Gro in the spring. Most hollyhocks do fine at the back of a bed or against a tall fence that helps hold them up during a heavy wind. Their long taproot can reach water deep in the soil, which makes them very drought-tolerant. Unfortunately, this taproot also makes them nearly impossible to transplant. They are also a favorite of deer.
The biggest bug problem Cheryle has is hollyhock weevils that lay eggs in the flower heads. She is always on the lookout for the telltale black flower bud that means a larva is busy eating the seeds. Those buds get picked quickly. The only other problems hollyhocks are prone to here are flea beetles that eat tiny holes in the leaves and a rust disease that turns the leaves a rusty red. In both cases, the best way to deal with the problems is to just pick off the affected leaves.