When you think of California, I'm guessing that hollyhocks are not the first thing you picture. Poppies, yes. Redwoods, check. Sequoias, sure. But not hollyhocks, which are really not often grown here. Alcea, or hollyhocks, hail from Asia and Europe. They like full sun, lots of regular water, and they are considered high-maintenance. I would never think to grow them, because we can't afford to use that much water, but I got a couple of free packets from the free seed guy in my neighborhood in 2015. Never one to turn down free seeds, I scattered these in my pollinator garden and forgot all about them.
In 2016, some of the seeds germinated and we got a few small flowers, but mostly just leaves. Apparently this is normal for hollyhocks - they bloom the second year. Ok, I thought, I'll wait. And this year, they finally started lookin' GOOD.
But in the last week or so, I noticed something wasn't right. I was having one of those weeks where I wasn't home except to sleep, and so I couldn't get in there and see what was happening. Today, I finally took a better look. And this is what I found.
Rust. A very bad case of it, all over the older leaves, the stems, some of the newer leaves, even some of the buds. Things had gotten very advanced and I was very late to the party.
I cut off a couple of leaves and took them to the only nursery within 30 miles that I thought might confirm my diagnosis, privately-owned Orchard Nursery in Lafayette (no affiliation with the hardware stores). I like this nursery very much, I just can't usually afford to shop there. However the people working there are knowledgable. Sure enough, my diagnosis was right, and I was advised to use copper fungicide to remedy the problem. I already have that at home since I use it as a spray for my dormant peach tree in the winter (to prevent peach leaf curl), so I headed home to take care of it. "One last thing," the nursery worker told me, "Hollyhocks are NOTORIOUS for rust." Fabulous.
So I came home, clipped off all the leaves that were affected, and drenched all the plants in Liqui-cop, including some nearby roses which had a slight case (but nothing like the hollyhocks). The affected foliage went into the green can, NOT the compost, so I don't reinfect everything. However rust spores travel through the air, so they likely drifted in from another garden, and found a nice place to settle here, and they're all over I imagine. We had a wet early spring, which probably didn't help, but I also tended to aim a spray or two of water from the hose at them, knowing they needed more than just what they were getting from our drip hose. This was a big mistake, as wet foliage can really increase the chances of rust.
I did some reading, and hollyhocks indeed are notorious for rust; it's usually a given that you will have rust if you have this plant. So! If you have some, go ahead and treat proactively, it can't hurt. And don't let water get on the foliage, if at all possible (I know, that's a ridiculous thing to think about unless you live here or in the desert).
My poor hollyhocks are all denuded and naked-looking, but the buds look ok; so maybe I'll get some flowers after all. I'll keep you posted!