The 'rust' is history: It's time we reappraised the seductive spectacle of hollyhocks

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The Independent Online

They're the Laura Ashley curtains of the gardening world, dangerously blowsy and 10 years out of date. And you certainly won't catch anyone using them in a garden at oh-so-modern Chelsea. Yet, like a tattered copy of Jilly Cooper's Riders, these plants can still provide a spectacle that is seductive with delight, if you just give them a chance.

The hollyhock is a determinedly old-fashioned, cottage-garden bloom. You'd have thought that would be a positive boon these days, what with fresh-faced models and ancient lady novelists alike wafting around summer festivals in vintage tea-dresses. But somehow the hollyhock has been left behind. Lately, I only ever find it growing in the occasional neglected front garden, between the cracks in concrete, where it seeded itself one summer long ago. And then stayed put.

Yet every time I see these wild-growing hollyhocks, I am reminded that they are properly fabulous. They put up huge stems, with saucer-sized flowers in pinks and reds, with no help at all from human hand. And they give great pleasure to a whole range of neighbourhood insects, which fly out at alarming angles, looking wobbly nectar-drunk.

Hollyhocks earned themselves a bad reputation for "rust", which may have had something to do with their fall from grace. This is a disease that affects the leaves, rendering them patchy with yellow and orange scabs, and dotted with holes. By autumn, almost all the leaves can be dead.

But rust is a fungus, and can be treated. Organic gardeners will cut all the leaves and stems down to the ground in autumn, and burn all the affected foliage. This prevents there being a "reservoir" for over-wintering spores. As with tomato blight, leaves shouldn't be left moist overnight, and you're best off delivering water straight to the roots, trying to keep the foliage dry as much as you can.

These are drought-resistant plants, and really, watering shouldn't be necessary except in the driest conditions. Many enthusiasts agree that manuring and watering just makes rust worse – a bit of mistreatment actually gets better results. So, if the problem persists, the other possibility is simply to spray your hollyhocks: try Systhane Fungus Fighter (£5.26 from capitalgardens.co.uk).

Once you've dealt with the disease, could it be time to put the plant back in your garden? Their advantages are manifold. Enormous height, but without any of the staking needed for other tall plants, such as delphiniums; a wonderful range of colours: choose great big powdery pink flowers, or go tasteful with wine-gum-coloured beauties such as Black Knight; little need to water; and a flowering season of up to two months. Now all I need is to dig out that copy of Riders...

The height of good taste

'Alcea rosea nigra'

Also known as Black Knight, this is one of the darkest-red hollyhocks, a velvety almost black colour, and dates back to pre- revolutionary America, where it was grown by Thomas Jefferson at his country estate. £1.75 for 45 seeds, suttons.co.uk

'Alcalthaea suffrutescens Parkallee'

Renews the old hollyhock by adding double-cream blooms that look almost like roses, on a branching set of stems. £5.99 for a plant in a two- litre pot, crocus.co.uk

Giant Single Mixed Hollyhocks

Beautifully untasteful, in sweetshop colours from pink to chocolate. £1.85 for 50 seeds, mr-fothergills.co.uk

Hollyhock Halo White

Two metres of old-fashioned marshmallow. £2.90 for 35 seeds, nickys-nursery.co.uk

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