old-fashioned hollyhocks plus gmo petunias, with joseph tychonievich

A NEIGHBOR’S CHERISHED hollyhocks were in bloom the other day, looking dreamy. And then I saw some serious flower porn on Facebook featuring hollyhocks, with the perpetrator being none other than Joseph Tychonievich, author of “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener” and “Rock Gardening: Reimagining a Classic Style,” a true plant nerd with a special love for old-fashioned things like hollyhocks.

Joseph wants to entice us all to grow them, and clue us in to which ones he recommends most (like the species Alcea hohenackeri, above), which he did on the July 24, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast.

Tip: now (summer) is the time to start easy-to-germinate hollyhock seeds for bloom next year. Read along as you listen to the July 24, 2107 program using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Plus: comment in the form at the very bottom of the page to enter to win a copy of your choice of one of Joseph’s books.

And another bonus: as I scrolled through Joseph’s Facebook page looking at more hollyhocks, I also saw that we are both nuts enough to share a current fascination with recent headlines in the nursery-industry trade press about GMO petunias, so he and I talked about that, too, starting at 14:50 in the audio.

q&a on hollyhocks plus gmo petunias, with joseph tychonievich



Q. First, I should really thank you for taking time right now, because I know you’re, shall we say, a bit distracted?

A. [Laughter.] Yes, I’m standing next to piles of boxes because we are moving in a couple of weeks, but always happy to talk about hollyhocks.

Q. And when a gardener moves, it’s a big deal, because it’s not just the usual—it’s whoof!

A. More plants than anything are moving. [Laughter.]

Q. You’re going from the Midwest to Virginia?

A. Yes.

Q. And you will explore a whole different Zone, and plant-hardiness possibilities.

A. I’m going from Zone 5 to Zone 7, and I am already starting a list of all the things that I couldn’t grow before that I will be able to grow now.

Q. [Laughter.] Uh-oh, uh-oh. Will that include hollyhocks?

A. Hollyhocks are something that are very adaptable, so that’s something I can grow both places. That’s a check mark in their favor, I guess.

Q. One time on the show we talked about your passion for gladiola, or Gladiolus, or however we want to say it, and I think of that as an old-fashioned favorite, too, if maybe of a slightly different vintage. But hollyhocks: I don’t grow them any more, and I lust after them every time I see them in someone’s garden, but I was thinking:

Are they even in the garden centers? Do they sell them, and when do they sell them? What do they look like when they sell them—and I guess that is one of the reasons they are not pushed more, and more ubiquitous.

A. They’re something that you are really going to have to usually grow from seed, because they are a difficult plant to handle in a nursery, probably because they’re just so massive. They can be 6 or 8 feet tall, and that’s awkward to deal with in a little nursery part; they fall over, and they’re hard to ship. So you rarely are going to see them sold as plants in the nursery.

Q. And the ones that are the most traditional, the species that in your plant-breeding book you call “the poster child of the genus,” is that Alcea rosea [above]?

A. That’s the classic hollyhock, and that’s the biennial one. So it’s going to make leaves the first year, and then flower the second year, and then that’s it. A lot of people shy away from biennials, but there are lots of great perennial species as well that can be grown.

Q. It’s really a shame that people shy away from biennials, and when I buy them I’d rather buy them before they put their spike up, and let them get settled in my garden before they flower. Do you know what I mean? I don’t mind getting them young.

A. The right time to buy them would be the first year, when they are just in leaf, but that’s also a hard sell. A lot of people don’t want to buy a plant that’s just leaves; they want pretty flowers.

Q. So it’s either too tall—it can’t even fit into my car at the garden center if they could even make it work in a 2-gallon pot at 6 feet tall; that’s a mess. And on the other hand, and maybe the better time to buy it, it doesn’t look like much except a rosette of leaves.

A. So it’s a great garden plant, and a terrible plant for a nursery, unfortunately. [Laughter.]

Q. So we can grow them from seed, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. You said there are also other species?

photo from Select SeedsA. The one that you are going to find most often is Alcea ficifolia, the fig-leaved hollyhock. That’s a good perennial species. It’s a really beautiful one, and it gets a little less of the bane of hollyhocks, the rust fungus, on its leaves. That one you’re going to find available, and that’s a good perennial to start with. [Select Seeds offers a hybrid of ficifolia, above, called ‘Happy Light;’ a different hybrid is sold at Jelitto Seeds. Photo of ‘Happy Lights’ above from Select Seeds.]

Q. So that’s a perennial.

A. You might also look for a new series called the Spotlight series, which is new hybrid breeding, and they’re really great perennials with a wide color range, and is supposed to be really disease-resistant, too, though honestly I have seen rust on them in my garden as well. But the Spotlight series is really good; another perennial series of hybrids.

Q. I saw on Facebook a photo of one that I didn’t recognize, and you said in the caption: “My favorite #hollyhock, Alcea hohenackeri.” How do you say that? [Laughter.] [Photo, top of page.]

A. It’s one of those species that I have written a lot but have rarely said out loud. It’s a really beautiful perennial, and I have been really impressed with it. It has been long-lived for me, and has the least rust on the leaves of any that I have grown. And it has really silvery fuzzy foliage, which is really nice, and pale yellow flowers.

Q. Yes, the flowers were a beautiful pale yellow, and with that silver foliage it was very appealing. Like I said in the intro: flower porn. That was one of the pictures that got me.  [Laughter.]

A. And it’s such a great plant because it’s so easy. I’ve had it for years, and it’s in dry, sandy soil and I never do anything with it, and it’s just tough and blooms each year, and has really been a standout for me in the genus.

Q. With something like that, did you grow it from seed, or where did you find it?

A. I grew it from seed, yes, and there are a few sources that carry it. Really you’re certainly going to have to do almost any of them from seed, but luckily they’re really easy. They have big fat seeds that germinate no fuss, and make vigorous seedlings, so they are really easy.

Q. When would I start them, or does it depend whether it’s a biennial or perennial? How far in advance am I doing what?

A. Right now is a good time to start either biennials or perennials. If you start them in the summer they will have enough time to get leaves up, and bulk up, and flower for you next year. I often start them later, just because in spring I am busy with so much else. When summer calms down, I can sow out my hollyhock seeds, and there will be leaves this year and whether perennial or biennials, they’ll start flowering for me in the second year.

Q. The rust thing: this is a fungal situation. Tell people who might not know what the deal is. I had them years and years ago—the classic cottage-garden, edge-of-the-garden kind of flower, a backdrop thing—but they’d defoliate or get real nasty on the foliage. Tell us a little more about the rust, because that’s what undid it for me, and I didn’t know to try other kinds at that time.

A. Rust is a fungal disease and it makes these little orange bumps that look like rust…

Q. [Laughter.]

A. …so that’s where the name comes from. Like you said, it can be pretty ugly, and it can defoliate them. The classic one, A. rosea, is probably the most susceptible, and it can get pretty gnarly with the rust. Some of the other species are more resistant, but I have yet to grow one that’s immune.

Everything I grow gets at least a little bit. But there are two things you can do. One is to plant them at the back of the border, with something else in front, and let the bottom foliage get ugly and just plant something else so you don’t see it. Then also you can cut them back hard, like after they flower or even if they are just in leaf. If they get really nasty then cut then to the ground, and they will flush out new foliage that will be cleaner. [Cornell’s factsheet on hollyhock rust, with photos, for more information.]

Q. If you do that with the biennial types you need to leave at least one or two plants probably to sow some seed for next year—to be the sort of mother for the next generation? How does that work?

A. I’m always advocating home plant breeding, as you know. So if you have the biennials, I would say pick out your favorite ones—the ones that had the most flowers, or the least rust, that looked prettiest, and let those set seed, and whack everybody else back hard. And if you do cut them back after flowering, the biennials will often come back for a third year, so that’s a good way to extend the life of the plant.

Q. So it might be sort of “biennial/short-lived perennial.”

A. If they don’t spend any energy on seed, often they will come through for another year.

Q. So back of the border is a good idea, with something that covers its legs as you said.

A. And they are so huge. I saw one that a neighbor is growing, and they fertilize like crazy, and it is literally like 10 feet tall.

Q. [Laughter.] The hollyhock that ate the garden. That’s a big plant.

A. It’s so massive, it’s unbelievable. If you put that in the front of the border it is going to block everything else, so put it in the back, and let it have a little rust.

Q. What about color range and flower forms and heights—you just talked about a neighbor who feeds them a lot and they are 10 feet tall, and you mentioned 6 feet earlier. Do the different species vary in size and color?

A. So the color range can go all the way from black—there are some nearly black flowers– through reds and purples and pinks and pale yellows. There are not a lot of strong yellows.

There are double-flowered forms but I don’t like them, but if you like big powder-puff flowers…. There is also a new series called the Halo series that’s beautiful.

Q. Yes. [Above, two of the Halo series; photos from Annie’s Annuals.]

A. It has this dark eye in the center, and they are gorgeous. They get so much rust in my garden, though. But the flowers are really spectacular and an interesting new pattern.

Q. I read about those. What I recall that years ago when I would get the seed it was a mix—I couldn’t just get the pale yellow or it was unusual to just pick one color. I have seen at places like Select Seeds’ catalog—and I think they may have plants and seeds—that she has single-color strains (and a mix, too). And also Annie’s Annuals, out in California, I think Annie’s has a lot of those Halo ones, actually—and it may be that they get less rust there, in a different environment than we have.

A. Definitely if you have less summer humidity, the rust is less of a problem.

Q. So that would make sense.

A. It really depends on where you are, how much of a problem it will be. Another place to look is Jelitto Seeds.

Q. Jelitto, right.

A. They’re in Germany, and have actually done a bunch of breeding. They have a new line of perennial forms. They have a really nice one called ‘Blacknight,’ which is that black flower which has been only in the rosea, the biennial, which is pretty prone to rust. But ‘Blacknight’ is perennial and more disease-resistant and has really cool nearly black flowers. [‘Blacknight’ photo above from Jelitto.]

Q. I might have seen that at Annie’s.

A. I think Annie’s is carrying it, and if she has plants, you can order them, or you can get seeds from Jelitto.

Q. I think Select Seeds has the ‘Nigra’ one. So there are some ways to get the single color now if you don’t want the riot of color thing that is the old-fashioned, cottage-garden look. So heights—from like 4 feet up?

A. I think 4 feet is about the shortest. There are ones that are annuals that will flower the first year from seed that are really short, which I don’t see the point to. [Laughter.] I could grow lots of 3-foot-tall perennials or annuals.

With most of the perennials, it really depends on how much you water and feed them, especially the biennials during that first season when they are getting up the energy to grow. I am kind of a lazy gardener and they fend as they will, and I don’t fertilize or irrigate, and the deer eat them down occasionally. Most of mine come out around 5 or 6 feet. If you give them rich soil and regular irrigation, you can push them to 8 or 10 feet.

Q. Wow.

A. When they’re really huge, you’ll probably have to stake them, because they are top-heavy, but you can really make a fun statement with them if you pamper them a little bit.

Q. I guess that’s why people plant them near their fence because you could always tie them to the fence. [Laughter.]

A. I’m terrible about staking.

Q. Me, too.

A. I don’t pamper them too much because I know they are just going to smash in the mud if I grow them too tall.

the news on gmo petunias

Q. So hollyhocks: We gotta get us some.  And petunias: I laughed so much when I saw it on your Facebook page, because you might be the only other nut I know who reads these stories. I got so excited—this was around mid-May—and I think it was in “Garden Center” magazine or at least their website or e-newsletter. The first headline was: “Breaking: Finnish report prompts petunia genetics investigation in the U.S.”

A. [Laughter.]

Q. And then a few days later, there was the follow-up story:

“Unauthorized GE [genetically engineered] petunias: USDA, industry weigh in.”

It’s all very grave and serious, and maybe we shouldn’t laugh as maybe it is grave and serious. But what happened with petunias that turned out to be genetically engineered—and this is not all petunias, but we’ll explain that. Give us a little backstory.

A. It seems to me as this story has unrav…unfolded…

Q. [Laughter] Unraveling.

A. [Laughter.] Yes. Back in the 80s, actually, academics moved a gene from corn into petunias. When they moved that gene from corn into petunias, it turned the flowers orange. And they just did it in a lab, to try to figure out what does this gene do, basically. and then, there was one paper published on it, and then this guy was walking down the street in Finland and saw these orange petunias and said, “Hey, when I was in graduate school I remember seeing petunias that looked like this, and they had a corn gene in them.” [Laughter.]

He took a sample—I think it was in front of the train station in Helsinki—and took them back to his lab and ran a test, and it was like, “Yep, they have that corn gene.”

That gene never got approval; they never went through the regulatory process that we have for genetically modified organisms, and now Europe and the U.S. is ordering all of them to be destroyed because they are classified as a biohazard. [Laughter.]

Q. It’s very interesting. For me the funniest part: Until I saw this story, there has only been one petunia I ever really fell for in a big way, and I don’t know how long ago—not 10 years ago, but not the last 3 or 4 years. Anyway. I haven’t really seen it since, but it caught my eye because I am an orange person. [Update: It was 2011, and the story is here.]

It was called ‘Papaya’ [above] and in the Potunia line from a particular breeding company, and it was so distinctive, like the inside of a papaya color. I just loved it, and grew it for a year or two and then it disappeared. I wondered why it was orange, but didn’t know it has corn genes, and sure enough it’s on the list of all the naughty petunias.

This is really a regulation issue, they are saying, not a safety issue, because petunias aren’t a food or fodder crop that we are either eating ourselves or feeding to animals, but they broke a rule by not filing that they were doing this. It’s a regulatory issue.

A. I think most people would say that 1, we’re not eating it, with the orange pigment—and 2, it’s not like with corn where they put these insecticidal genes in it, and that might have impacts on the environment. An orange pigment in a flower seems to have little safety concerns or larger ecological ones.

In Europe it will probably be very difficult to get deregulated. In the U.S., our rules are laxer on that. So yes, they probably could have gone through the proper channels and got this released legally.

What’s interesting is that the trait popped up in like four different companies’ breeding at around the same time, and they are all saying, “We have no idea where it came from.” [Laughter.]

Q. [Laughter.] [Above, two presumably GMO varieties Joseph saw recently for sale in a nursery.]

A. You have to wonder: You see this crazy new color and everyone’s like, “We don’t know, it sort of just arrived.” It will be interesting to see. Everyone’s just saying, “Gosh, we have no idea how it happened; we’re destroying them all.”

It would be interesting to know how the gene moved from a university research program into all these different petunia-breeding programs around the world, actually.


Q. Interesting to do the forensics—maybe it could be the next season of ‘Sherlock,” with Benedict Cumberbatch. They can investigate it.

A. [Laughter.]

Q. What a spokesperson for the USDA said in one of the more recent stories is that, again, since it’s not a risk to human health since we don’t eat them, they’re not asking consumers who might have an orange petunia in their garden, or retailers that have them in stock, to destroy them this season. They’re just saying that breeders, growers and retailers should “voluntarily withdraw GE plants from distribution,” and destroy them. It’s not like you the gardener is breaking some law or has something dangerous. It’s a compliance thing, not a safety thing.

Then I read a later story I couldn’t even understand:

“A spokesman for USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service-Biotechnology Regulatory Services (USDA-APHIS-BRS) says, ‘the exact genetic identification has not been confirmed.’”

They’re still testing, in other words—and not just the corn thing, but what else is going on in there. Because they are not all exactly the same, and there is a whole list as you say from multiple breeders. [Update: Testing continues to see if all the orange petunias have the corn gene, or something else is at work, and also to test other colors of petunias, some of which have also been found to be affected.]

And they say: “…we are advising organizations to test for the presence of Cauliflower mosaic virus 35 S RNA promoter…” and it’s like in language that’s not even English, so I am like, “What?” What does this all mean?

A. What that means weirdly is that in the U.S. for non-food crops we don’t actually regulate genetic engineering per se. So if it’s just the corn gene, you could insert the corn gene and release it with no approval, and that would be perfectly legal in the U.S. You couldn’t do that in Europe.

But what they usually do is a combination of the corn gene and this Cauliflower mosaic virus that you just mentioned, and that virus gene is regulated. If they have the corn gene but not the virus, it might be OK, but if they have the viral gene plus the corn gene then it definitely is not.

Q. Oy, vey, Shirley—I’m telling you. My head is spinning over here! [Laughter.] This is the crazy intrigue.

A. What I think is interesting is because like you just said that technically they could recreate this if they just avoided using the viral DNA and used the corn DNA—you could recreate it legally. But I bet a lot of companies are watching the reaction to this, because there really hasn’t been a lot of public outcry that I have noticed, anyway.

And they may be saying, “Well maybe we’ll just wait a couple of years and then we’ll do this”—to make essentially the same thing but just tweak it to avoid the regulation, and release it. It will be interesting to see if this opens up a brave new world in petunia breeding.

Q. It’s a little bit of a test case. Or in other breeding, for that matter—they could use this case as a standard. Joseph, I love the fact that I finally found someone who’s as interested in kooky, strange things as I am. [Laughter.]

more about gmo petunias

enter to win either of joseph’s books

I’LL BUY A COPY of either “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener” or “Rock Gardening: Reimagining a Classic Style,” for a lucky reader. All you have to do to enter: Comment in the box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment, answering this question:

Do you grow hollyhocks, and if so which–and did you start from seed or how?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will, but an answer is better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close at midnight on Tuesday, August, 2017. Good luck to all.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 24, 2017 show right here.You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


(Photos by Joseph Tychonievich except as noted. Disclosure: Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)


  1. Pat Haley says:

    I grew hollyhocks from seed in Zone 7. They were around for 3-4 years and then disappeared. I had both deep pink and white. When I was a child we had weddings with the blossoms being the heads and the flowers being the bridesmaids’ dresses. After reading this article, I intend to replant more hollyhocks soon.

  2. Iliana Okum says:

    I love the hollyhocks described in the article…will be looking for the seeds soon. Thanks for always bringing the best news for the garden. Count me in.

  3. Lauren B. says:

    Hmm I used to grow Hollyhocks but the rust thing made me stop. Now that Neem oil is common and there are some that are more reistant I may try again. I kinda forgot about them!

    1. margaret says:

      I’d gather seeds as soon as they form, and sow them ASAP (I’d do it in pots then transplant them), but also look around for possible young plants near that parent that have not reached flowering size yet, in case you can dig and transplant some. I don’t know how many hollyhock colors/types are around that one, or if it’s the only kind so the seedlings are more likely to be like the parent…but the older plant that has flowered already isn’t likely to do so again, so I would not try digging it. Gathering its seed is the most reliable way to get what you are seeking.

  4. Jan Sullivan says:

    I have tried to grow them for many years with no luck.

    In my mother and grandmother’s gardens they were beautiful, grew all over with not much attention.

    We loved making pretty ladies with the many colors for their skirts.

  5. Nancy says:

    I used to get hollyhocks growing on their own and I miss them, so I planted some seeds this month and they are growing. I appreciate your information on treating them as a biennial.

  6. margaret says:

    And the winner (who has been notified by email) is Linus. Thanks to all of you for your lively interest and great comments.

  7. Liz Carnahan says:

    I planted two hollyhock at the back of my border last year, two amazing shades of pink, procured from a local greenhouse as first year plants.

    I mostly just water my perennials the first year unless there is a serious drought and I am at best a haphazard fertilizer :-).

    This year they were amazing, especially considering I got them thru last years drought!!! Everyone that saw them this year commented how beautiful they were saying “oh, I love hollyhock- so striking!!!” They are around 6 foot, almost finished flowering now though I see one has sent up another shoot of blooms for a little late season color.. a little bit of rust but I don’t mind (I live in zone 6 in MA).

    After seeing some of these amazing varieties I am very excited to do some research and add some more beautiful specimens to my garden next year. Thank you for a fascinating article.

  8. dianna dudar says:

    I’d love to plant hollyhocks like in my mom’s garden in different colors right next to the fence. Every garden should be eye candy.

  9. Karen Brant says:

    I have some mystery hollyhock seeds that I will try after reading this interesting Interview. I sm sorry Joseph is trading “zones.”

  10. Donald says:

    Yeah – that “rust thing” – I’ve finally given in to it. In my high humidity area, even the more tolerant French variety is always covered. —Cut back the leaves and voila there it is again on the brand new leaves. Love them but….

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