Outhouses were an unpleasant necessity before the introduction of indoor plumbing. My aunt, who had plenty of experience with privies as a child, called one a “House of Horrors” in a humorous poem about them. So those often odiferous structures tended to get tucked discreetly away behind ranks of tall flowering plants.
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You’d think homeowners would have chosen fragrant flowers for that screen, which could double as natural air fresheners, but the favorites generally were non-perfumed hollyhocks (Alcea spp.) or ‘Hortensia.’ The latter is a double-flowered version of Rudbeckia laciniata, sometimes called ‘Golden Glow’ instead.
Although not alike in appearance, the so-called “outhouse plants” still have their similarities. Both the hollyhocks and the rudbeckia are summer bloomers hardy in zones 3 to 9, which reach statuesque heights and bear flowers 3 inches or more in diameter.
So a visitor who didn’t want to inquire the way to the little house out back generally could locate it with a quick scan of the landscape. She then could mutter something vague about going to admire the hollyhocks, which her hostess would completely understand.
Unfortunately, their association with outhouses may have given hollyhocks a “coarse” reputation when they really are highly spectacular plants which can grow to 9 feet tall. Although some are biennial rather than perennial, the former often self-sow heavily enough to seem perennial. The type I’ve had the longest is a maroon-centered pale pink or cream colored variety which originally was sent to me from an overseas trader who called it Donkerhart (“dark heart”). As hollyhocks will, it has continued to plant itself off and on for years.
It has the round leaves characteristic of Alcea rosea. The Antwerp hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia) sports “skinny” divided foliage resembling fig leaves and reportedly is less likely to suffer from rust than its fuller-figured relative.
I’ve discovered that hollyhocks don’t like overly wet conditions, as one standing on a slight incline fared well this soggy summer while the one next to it—more down in a hollow—rotted before it bloomed. Otherwise, they usually are easy to grow, though somewhat susceptible to the rust mentioned earlier and also inclined to fall flat on their faces when the ground is too soft.
When gathering seeds, keep in mind that those can be infested with weevil larvae which eat out the seed embryos. That could be why the germination of hollyhocks often can seem erratic—very good in one year and very bad in another! So be sure to discard any seeds which seem to have holes in them. Soak the others overnight before pressing them into the surface of your seed starting mix and keeping it somewhat cool—at about 68 degrees Fahrenheit—until those seeds sprout.
Since I’m fond of double-flowered rudbeckias, I’ve sown 'Hortensia' once or twice, but without any success. So I’m not sure whether its seeds are sterile or I just wasn’t planting them correctly. Most rudbeckias have very fine seeds which should be pressed into the surface of seed-starting mix and kept warm until they germinate in 5 days or so.
The wild Rudbeckia laciniata has thicker seeds, however. And I recently read somewhere that they should have at least a month of cold treatment before being planted. I’m guessing that the same could hold true for laciniata cultivars such as ‘Hortensia’ as well. If anybody has grown it from seed successfully, please let us know how you did so.
I may just have to buy a plant! ‘Hortensia’ reportedly can grow to 7 feet and spread aggressively where it is happy, so be careful where you place it. And be very grateful that you don’t have to take a dark trek outdoors in the middle of a winter night to use snow-dusted facilities located behind shriveled hollyhocks or rudbeckias!
Photos: The hollyhock photos are my own. The 'Hortensia' photos are by GardenGuyKin and ceedub respectively, both from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles.