Hollyhocks are incredibly popular in traditional English cottage garden plants. They resemble tropical plants, yet they thrive in cool, coastal climates. Their towering spikes and saucer-sized flowers add structure and scale to your landscape design, and they're the perfect alternative for gardeners who might freak out about the toxicity of similar plants, such as foxglove and larkspur. Though their sap may cause mild skin irritation, hollyhocks are considered safe for pets and people.
Hollyhock's blooms are as large as 5” in diameter with colors range anywhere from white, pale pink, yellow, magenta, to deep red. If you're going for the Goth look, you'll absolutely love black hollyhocks, which appear to have an iridescent tinge of blues and pink against a velvety black background.
Hollyhocks are hummingbird and butterfly magnets, thanks to their copious pollen and nectar-rich flowers, and their gently-lobed, slightly crinkly leaves have a heart-shaped outline; they're larger at the base, getting smaller as they progress up the plants' central spike. Their flowers may be multi-layered like the Carnival or Double Majorette varieties, or single-layered, closely resembling hibiscus.
If you've had a crappy day at work, and you wish you were in Maui, at least you can grab yourself a Mai Tai and transport yourself to a sandy beach when you've got hollyhock flowers as the focus of your thousand-yard stare.
Hollyhock History & Uses
As with our article on growing larkspur, we wrote this post in October, so we're going to turn to Wytchery: A Gothic Curiosity Cabinet to help us relate hollyhock's history and folklore. And we think it's amusing to imagine people dressed all in black, covered in cake makeup, melting on hot sunny beaches.
Fairies were believed to use the blooms as skirts, and Hollyhock seed pods were known as fairy cheese because they resembled a cheese wheel. There is even a recipe dating from 1660 that recommends combining Hollyhock, Marigolds, Wild Thyme and Hazel buds in order to allow mortals to see the fairy folk.
Hollyhocks are members of the mallow (Malvaceae) family, and are thought to originate in western Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Several reputable sources claim hollyhocks were introduced to Western Europe during the Crusades, but the highly-esteemed A Modern Herbal claims A. rosea came directly to England from China.
Egyptians buried their mummies with hollyhocks, and in the late 16th and early 17th century, the English used hollyhock tinctures to help with difficult pregnancies and to soothe teething in babies.
Here are some more fun facts about hollyhock's role in herbal folklore and white magic:
- Pagans associated hollyhock with abundance, fertility, and prosperity.
- In the 19th century, a mix of hollyhock sap and sugar made a popular candy product.
- Hollyhock teas and poultices treated kidney stones, gastrointestinal disorders, bleeding, lung disease, and bladder infections.
Even today, hollyhock is used in lotions and body washes to soothe skin irritation, which is contradictory to warnings we've seen that the plant can be an irritant. So take care and do your own research before you use it topically or internally. Speaking of, check out the blog Our Permaculture Life to learn how to use hollyhock flowers in salads, how to cook its leaves as you would spinach, or turn the plants into teas and poultices.
Don't wanna eat it? No problem. Cut your hollyhock stalks and bring them indoors to decorate your home. They add drama to large-scale floral arrangements!
How Will Hollyhocks Perform in Your Garden?
Biennial hollyhocks, including Alcea rosea, spend their first season growing their foliage and establishing their deep taproots. They won't bloom until their second season, though fall-seeded hollyhocks might produce flowers in their first summer. The plants will go to seed and die at the end of their second year, which is why we recommend seeding new plants each season for an ongoing "colony." In their most ideal growing zones, they'll easily reseed themselves.
True perennial hollyhocks, such as Alcea rugosa will bloom their first season. Either type you choose, their growing requirements remain the same.
Ideal Climate: Hollyhocks are officially viable in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 9, though in the coldest zones, be sure to protect the plants with mulch, and keep them in the warmest spot in your garden. We at Seed Needs don't recommend hollyhocks in zones 3 and 4.
In zone 8 and anywhere the summers get especially hot, mulch your plants to retain moisture and help keep the roots cool. Take care to leave about 2" of space around the base of your plants.
Sunlight Preferences: Growing hollyhocks from seed requires full sun to truly thrive. Only in the very hottest and driest climates will they tolerate partial shade.
Moisture Requirements: Never let the subsoil dry out in your hollyhock beds, but allow the top 1" to 2" to dry in between waterings to reduce humidity around the plant's basal structure. Consider installing soaker hoses, ground drip irrigation or low-profile spray emitters. If you use traditional, overhead watering, be sure to irrigate in the morning to allow the plants to dry out.
Soil Preferences: Humus-rich, fertile soil produces the best plants and flowers, and helps retain soil moisture. Hollyhocks require a pH range between 6 and 8.
Plant Height: 3 to 6 feet, though you might get the occasional 9' monster. When the racemes are about 1 to 2 feet tall and still bare of flower buds, you can cut them back. They'll regrow, but to a smaller height.
Plant Spread: 18" to 24" wide
Growth Habit: Upright
Bloom Period: June through August
Hollyhock Diseases: This plant is susceptible to moisture-related issues, and hollyhock is so special, it even has its own fungus. Here are plant cooties known to affect hollyhocks:
You can prevent most diseases that affect hollyhocks by providing good air circulation and ground-level watering. Fortunately, you can treat most of these fungal problems with family-safe sulphur or copper-based fungicides, and by removing and destroying (not composting) affected foliage. If you get a bad infestation of hollyhock rust, consider starting over in a different section of your garden since spores can lurk in the soil.
Hollyhock Pests: Keep an eye out for insect pests, especially those that love plant sap:
Contrary to our recommendation to keep hollyhock foliage, stems, and flowers dry, an occasional spray-down of a pyrethrin solution, applied on a hot day, can help cut down on harmful insects.
Hollyhocks are moderately rabbit-resistant.
Maintenance: These voracious plants need one good dose of fertilizer when they begin blooming. Any standard water-soluble rose food or low-nitrogen fertilizer will do; dilute it by half. A second application a month later is fine, but don't overdo it. At the end of the bloom period, cut the stalks down to just above the base leaves, and remove any wilted foliage. In warmer zones, your hollyhock basal leaves may stay green through the winter.
Be prepared to stake the racemes, especially if they're exposed to wind. The stalks are pretty tough and rigid, and not as delicate as those of similar plants.
Container Growing: Hollyhocks are heavy feeders, and their deep taproots require tall pots or raised beds. Standard varieties are unsuitable for container gardens, but with some coddling, you might get away with growing dwarf varieties. Be sure the soil is loose, well-draining, and compost-rich, and be prepared to fertilize on a weekly basis. So...in short, we wouldn't choose this plant as an ideal container species.
Growing Hollyhocks from Seed
Hollyhocks quickly grow long taproots and can be finicky about being transplanted. We recommend direct-seeding them. If you do decide to start them inside, use the deepest biodegradable pots you can find, or make your own tall newspaper pots.
Whether you direct-sow or transplant your hollyhocks, be sure to select the right spot straight out of the gate. Once they've begun growing in earnest, they're tenacious and nearly impossible to dig out and relocate.
- Bed Preparation: Loosen the soil beds down to 16", and mix in well-rotted manure or compost and time-release, high-phosphorus fertilizer pellets.
- Seed Treatment: Soak hollyhock seeds in room-temperature water for 12 hours or hot water for 30 minutes prior to seeding.
- When to Plant Outdoors: Plant them outdoors in early fall (zones 6 to 10) for an early start the following season, or after the last spring frost when you can predict consistent soil temperatures between 60 to 65°F.
- When to Plant Indoors: 8 to 10 weeks before last spring frost.
- Seed Depth: 1/4"
- Seed Spacing: Plant hollyhock seeds or thin seedlings 18" apart.
- Days to Germination: 6 to 12 days at 65°F.
If you gather hollyhock seeds from your own plants, only do some from the healthiest, most disease resistant specimens. Break up the seed pods, and store them in a cool, dark place until you're ready to start the cycle again!
Source Your Hollyhock Seeds from Seed Needs
We wish we could help you get that plane ticket to Hawaii. Since our family business is based in Michigan, we feel your pain; winters can be pretty rough, but at least we can look forward to our gardens come Spring. And if we can't get to the tropics, at least we can bring the tropics to us.If you'd like to learn more about our hollyhock seeds, or any other ornamental, vegetable, or herb varieties we offer, contact us! We're always open to suggestions, and we love it when our customers share their garden photos, feedback, and frou-frou, beach-bar cocktail recipes.