Once again I am stunned by a flowering plant in my yard, a nonnative variety I inherited from a previous homeowner. It went unnoticed until today, when I watched a hummingbird flit from flower to flower in search of sweet nectar. Wow, my red blooming hollyhocks are gorgeous.
The Hollyhock (Alcea rosea) is part of the Mallow family, which includes a variety of plants - hibiscus, cotton, and even the cocoa tree. Like Sweet William, it is a cottage garden favorite that is short lived but readily reseeds. It grows up to 8 feet tall, with single or double flowers in a spike and large leaves at the base. It flowers in a wide range of colors, grows in all kinds of soil, and tolerates partial shade. Traditional gardeners find the hollyhock to be high maintenance as the leaves at the base die early, creating a shabby or leggy look unless hidden by flowers planted in front. It is susceptible to disease and pests, and may also require staking to keep the tall stalks upright. Hollyhocks usually are planted along a fence line or wall and bloom over the course of the summer from the bottom of the stalk up.
Then there are my hollyhocks. My plants likely are self-sowing plants from seed sharing neighbors years ago (relatives are visible in adjacent yards). This generation is volunteering in a graveled and untended area of the yard, standing 6 feet tall, not staked, not irrigated and not part of any garden plan. They have dozens of buds on each stalk and are blooming randomly along the stalks, at both the top and at the bottom. The flowers are scentless and crepe-like but sturdy enough to withstand a hailstorm. It appears there are two varieties growing, one with deep red blooms, the other with cream colored blooms, and each with a different shaped leaf. I, like the pollinators, am more attracted to the red bloom variety.
Hollyhocks have not been a consideration in my “gardening for wildlife” plan. The common hollyhock originated in China and was brought to England during the Crusades, so their nonnative status reduces the likelihood that they benefit the native pollinators in our community. However, in my yard, the showy flowers attract hummingbirds and bees. I have seen them. And I just discovered they may be caterpillar food as well. (http://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/insects/attracting-butterflies-to-the-garden-5-504-2/) They do well in the Colorado climate and are a great addition to xeric gardens. (http://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/xeriscaping-perennials-and-annual-flowers-7-231/) Perhaps most important (after their pollinator attracting characteristics), they require very little tending by the Steamboat gardener. Hollyhocks bring a big burst of summer color to our casual gardens.
Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.