The fig-leaf hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia) is rust-resistant.

Who says all hollyhocks (Alcea spp.) are infested with rust (Puccinia malvacearum), a disease that burns up the lower leaves before the end of the summer? True enough, there are no rust-resistant varieties of the species most often sold, the common hollyhock (Alcea rosea), but there are more than other 60 species of Alcea. Surely among that many species, there must be at least a few that are just as ornamental as the common hollyhock, but without rust problems?

Lots of Choice

Russian hollyhock (Alcea rugosa)

And indeed, if you just do a little research, you’ll discover that there are in fact many hollyhock species that are rust-resistant, including the following: fig-leaf or Antwerp hollyhock (A. ficifolia), Russian hollyhock (A. rugosa), Kurd hollyhock (A. kurdica), and Turkish hollyhock (A. pallida).

Fig-leaf hollyhock ‘Happy Lights’ (Alcea ficifolia ‘Happy Lights’)

Note that the fig-leaf hollyhock, especially, looks almost exactly like the common hollyhock except that its leaves are hand-shaped rather than rounded. Although the species has pale yellow flowers, some varieties, such as ‘Antwerp Mix’, ‘Happy Lights’, ‘Las Vegas’, and ‘Old Fashioned Mix’, come in the same color range as the common hollyhock: red, pink, yellow, white, purple, and almost black, have flowers just as big and attractive, and flower just as long, that is, almost all summer. I simply don’t understand why the fig-leaf hollyhock did not replace its disease-ridden cousin, the common hollyhock, long ago.

That said, I must admit that as far as I know, there are no fig-leaf hollyhocks with double flowers. If you want double blooms, you have little choice but to turn to the common hollyhock… and its rust problems.

Diseased Plants on Sale In a Garden Center Near You!

Hollyhock rust at a fairly advanced stage. Photo: Rutgers University.

Sadly, most garden centers still sell only hollyhock plants infested with rust. And I’m not exaggerating. Go into the average garden center, look for their stock of hollyhocks (most only sell common hollyhock) and turn over a leaf or two. You’ll already see the first orange pustules that will soon spread all over the leaves! They’re offering you a pre-diseased plant!

Fortunately, even if plants of rust-resistant hollyhocks are rarely seen in garden centers, seeds of the “good hollyhocks” are commonly available in seed catalogs, both printed and virtual. I suggest checking your favorite seed catalog to see.

Generations of gardeners know that hollyhocks are easy to grow from seed. Either sow them indoors in March or April or directly outdoors in May. They’ll bloom the following year.

Note that all the species discussed here are are hardy to zone 3.

17 comments on “Rust-Resistant Hollyhocks

  1. Is the rust in the Hollyhock or the dirt? I have had my Hollyhocks growing (started from seed), beautifully for 5 years. This year they all got rust.

    • Daniel

      It’s a fungal spore carried on the wind, and it grows within the cells of the plant. You did well to get 5 years!

  2. It’s interesting that the straight species of kurdica, rugosa and ficifolia are all yellow. Breeders never got their hands on kurdica or rugosa as I guess they were less well-known or were considered to be foreign, so those remain available only in ‘species yellow’. But ficifolia was seen to be full of potential and that was what they hybridized with all the colorful rosea cultivars and, as you say, possibly losing some of their native rust-resistance in the process.

    • There are also straight species with white flowers that are also apparently disease-resistant.

      • Thank you! That’s interesting. I guess I haven’t come across those in my online travels so I assumed those particular species were only in yellow. I’d like very much to grow a white Hollyhock in one of those species – might you be able to point me in the right direction?

      • There would be Alcea nudiflora, among others.

  3. Just discovered this article and am very glad to see it. I just ordered seeds for Russian Hollyhock (Alcea rugosa) and will be eager to see its rust-resistance. Can you suggest where I can get Alcea kurdica in the US? None of the online seed companies I know of carries it. Thank you.

    • I’m not seeing it either at the moment. But a lot of online seed companies only list what they have currently in stock and won’t be announcing their seeds for 2021 until February or so. You might want to check back then or order internationally.

  4. Sheila Eberhardt

    I did not know about this problem of rust on hollyhocks. I ordered 6 plants of “Old Barnyard Mix” single hollyhocks in early March, just when Covid 19 became an emergency. They took a long time to arrive by UPS, and were not individually wrapped but just included in a very large cardboard carton with other types of plants. The box had sat several days somewhere as UPS held it. When they arrived, the hollyhocks looked as though they’d been shredded. there were 3 more than I ordered, and those were ripped down to their crowns. I held the live ones in the garage, exposing them to sun & weather gradually more each day, then planted the 6 in a prepared bed with very good drainage. They were slow to take off but are now very healthy looking maybe 7-8″ tall, except some leaves have pale,yellowish, tiny winding paths on them, and I will CRY if this means they have the rust! The marks are not little pustules, not holes. No one I know grows hollyhocks, but I’ve been wanting to grow them for so long.! Please give me some helpful info, preferably that they are not in danger.

    Thank you for reading this long note! Also for any help you can provide.
    Sheila Eberhardt

    • The winding paths are certainly not rust! They’re probably just leaf miners, a common but harmless insect that nibbles leaf parts from inside the leaf, but does so little damage, it’s not worth treating.

  5. Yes, I would have to agree with that, as the ‘Antwerp’ mix (from Swallowtail Seeds) were totally covered in rust as first year seedlings, though this year all hollyhocks were clean. Our favorite is the gorgeous double red and white ‘Fiesta Time’, it can get rust in certain years, though mostly has been clean, I am not claiming it to be resistant.

  6. Try Russian hollyhock (A. rugosa), Kurd hollyhock (A. kurdica), or Turkish hollyhock (A. pallida). I’ve been finding that many modern strains of fig leaf hollyhock are hybrids with common hollyhock, reducing their disease resistance. http://www.jelitto.com has several disease-resistant types.

  7. have you found any rust resistant hollyhock seeds . i found some seeds called happy lights they were suppose to be rust resistant .planted them this year they got rust on them . if you have
    found some truly rust resistant , let me know, and where to get seeds
    thanks — clinton

  8. Pingback: If You Can’t See the Problem, There is No Problem! – Laidback Gardener

  9. There is a village called Ebeltoft in Denmark which has hollyhocks every where and not a sign of rust on any of them, as far as I could see, and they have the fig shaped leaf instead of a round one. I knew the leaf was different but no nursery knew of them. I have a load of seeds I collected so I will have rust free hollyhocks!!!

    • i have been on internet looking for the rust resistance varietys ,of hollyhock seeds. i cannot find anyone that has them in stock . i would like to find the happy lights ,or the single old fashioned mix.
      in seeds

      • I’d suggest waiting until early spring (say March) before searching for seeds of perennials and biennials. Many seed companies put up “sold out” notices when they run out of the current year’s seeds, then put the plant back on their website again when they finish packing their seeds in spring. Rust resistant hollyhock seed is usually readily available, but not necessarily at this time of year.

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