An Essential Guide to Growing Hollyhocks for Food and Beauty

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Looking for some stately color in your garden? Consider growing hollyhocks for both impressive height and dazzling color. They’re tall, gorgeous plants that thrive just about anywhere, and don’t need much maintenance.

If you’re cultivating flowers around your property, you know that having species of different heights is ideal. In fact, growing species of different heights and textures can make the difference between a flower garden that’s just “meh,” and one that’s breathtakingly beautiful.

Plus, the flowers are edible and they’re downright tasty, so let’s dig into the specifics:

What are Hollyhocks?

An essential guide to growing hollyhocks for food and beauty

These tall beauties from the Alcea genus are tender flowering plants from the Malvaceae family. This makes them cousins to mallows (Althea officinalis) and hibiscus. Depending on the cultivar and your USDA Growing Zone, they can be annuals, biennials, or perennials.

They come in a wide variety of different hues and make excellent perimeter plants. This is largely because of their size: hollyhocks can grow over seven feet tall! As such, they often require support so they don’t tip over.

Many people choose to grow theirs along fences specifically for this reason. Alternatively, you can attach trellises or hooks to the side of your house to offer them support that way.

Just be aware that you may not see flowers the first year that you plant them. Once again, this will depend largely on the cultivar. Biennial and perennial hollyhocks generally take two years to flower. As such, you may want to plant a different annual alongside them if you’d like flowers in the first season.

Best Cultivars and Hybrids

These flowers come in a startling array of different hues. I have a penchant for gothic gardening, so I have deep black “Watchman” hollyhocks by my patio.

Other friends cultivate pink, peach, purple, or red varieties, or a glorious combination thereof. If you have a themed garden full of specific hues, you’re bound to find some cultivars to fit your chosen aesthetic.

‘Chater’s Double’ has vibrant pink, double blossoms, while ‘Dwarf Double’ stays petite but still has massive, double flowers. ‘Sunshine’ has bright yellow single blossoms. ‘Blacknight’ is nearly black and ‘Halo Apricot’ has a dark purple center with an apricot exterior.

An essential guide to growing hollyhocks for food and beauty

Planting Hollyhocks

Hollyhocks do best in well-draining, fairly sandy soil that has quite a bit of aged compost worked into it. If you think your soil is depleted, then amend it with aged manure as well as perlite and vermiculite before planting.

These plants are quite low maintenance, and people have been growing hollyhocks successfully in Zones 2-10 for decades. They need a lot of sunlight, so be sure to plant them in an area that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight per day.

If you live in a hotter climate, then an area that gets dappled shade in the hottest part of the day would benefit them too.

Sowing Seeds

You can take the seeds from your plant at the end of the summer and use them to grow new ones. Or you can buy hollyhock seeds.

An essential guide to growing hollyhocks for food and beauty

Although you can plant hollyhock seeds in springtime, they have a better germination rate if you plant them in the autumn. This is because they seem to do best after a period of cold stratification.

That said, if you’re planning on growing hollyhocks in your garden ASAP, then there’s a trick that may help you. Soaking the seeds in warm water for about 30 minutes can significantly increase their germination rate. Try doing that before planting them.

These plants grow quite tall and can take a while to establish themselves. This is actually why most people sow in autumn for blooms the following summer. If you’re planning on spring planting, then sow the seeds in sterile potting soil in late winter. This way, the seedlings will be a few inches tall already when you transplant them outdoors.

Just remember that these plants have long taproots. You’ll need to sow them in tall, deep planters so they don’t get rootbound within a matter of a couple of weeks.

Caring for Hollyhocks

An essential guide to growing hollyhocks for food and beauty

Although hollyhocks are quite resistant to drought, they fare better when they get deep drinks on a regular basis. Make sure to keep their soil consistently moist (but not waterlogged) until they’re well established. Once they’re about a foot tall, reduce waterings to one or two deep drinks a week.

If you’ve worked plenty of compost into the soil before planting, they should have enough nourishment to see them through the season. That said, if you think they could use a bit of a pick-me-up mid-season, they won’t object!

Aim for a fertilizer that has higher potassium and phosphorous levels than nitrogen. The latter is ideal for green growth, but not flowering. As such, try a 0-10-10 or similar, and follow the directions on the fertilizer’s packaging.

Always water your hollyhocks at the root level to avoid fungal issues.

In mid to late autumn, cut your hollyhock stems back to about four inches. If you’re in Zones 6 or below, mulch over them with straw to offer them a protective bed over the winter. Then rake this away in early spring to allow the sun to revive your plants.

Pruning and Seed Collecting

Deadhead the flowers as soon as the blossoms start to die off, and toss them into your compost heap. Alternatively, if you’d like to propagate more hollyhocks next season, allow some of the blooms to mature into seed heads. These flowers self-seed very enthusiastically, so you can just let them drop their seeds in situ.

Of course, you can also collect the seeds before they drop. This way, you can sow them in other locations, and/or trade them with your friends.

Potential Pests and Pathogens

You’re bound to come across certain issues when growing hollyhocks, just like with any other plant. That said, they’re quite resilient when it comes to most health issues. The ones listed below are some of the more common ones that you may come across.

Rust

If you’re in a hot, humid climate, then there’s a good chance that your hollyhock plants might come down with rust disease. This is a fungal pathogen that thrives in warm, damp conditions.

An essential guide to growing hollyhocks for food and beauty

You’ll first notice that the plant leaves have orangey, rust-colored spots on them. Bumps will develop soon after, and then the leaves die and fall off.

While you can’t prevent rust, you can take action to try and fend it off. For one, you can try to cultivate rust-resistant cultivars. Secondly, only water your plants at ground level, as mentioned earlier.

Thirdly, remove any detritus from the soil around your plants. Keeping the area free from fallen leaves and other rotting plant matter will reduce the chances of any infections.

If rust appears, hose your plants down with a copper fungicide. Additionally, be sure to clean all your garden tools regularly to avoid cross-contamination. Wash garden clothes and tools with a bit of bleach to disinfect them, and keep your boots or clogs clean too.

Anthracnose

This is another fungal disease that thrives in similar conditions to the rust mentioned above. Treat it the same way as rust, and take the same precautionary measures. Fungal issues like these can accelerate very quickly. As such, if you’re growing hollyhocks, it’s important to check them daily for any signs of blight.

Hollyhock Weevils

These gray-snouted, orange-legged weevils (Apion longirostre) feed on hollyhocks and lay their eggs in the seed pods. They live in ground-level detritus such as fallen leaves and crawl out to eat and mate at night.

If your hollyhock leaves seem to be gnawed upon, go outside at night with a flashlight and check your plants. Pick off these weevils by hand and toss them into a bucket of soapy water.

This will drown them and stop their breeding cycle. Burn any seedpods that you think may be affected, and then spray insecticidal soap or neem oil onto your plants to fend off additional interlopers.

Sawflies

A ravenous host of sawfly larvae can skeletonize entire plants practically overnight. They appear as bright green, hairless, caterpillar-looking creatures about 1/2″ in length. Pick these off by hand and drown them, or feed them to your poultry if you’re raising them.

Diatomaceous earth can be of help, as can neem oil and similar pesticides. Keep detritus away from your plants, and cultivate yarrow nearby. This will attract parasitic braconid wasps that will help to keep larvae populations down.

Japanese Beetles

An essential guide to growing hollyhocks for food and beauty

These little buggers can completely annihilate your plants’ leaves in a matter of days. This is because these beetles only come out of hibernation for a couple of weeks, and gorge themselves while they can.

Pick them off your plants as you would with weevils, and set beetle traps at the soil level. Then hose your plants down with neem oil and hope for the best.

Eating Hollyhocks

You can eat any part of the hollyhock plant from the roots to the tips. However, the flowers are the tastiest part. Use the young leaves as you would spinach and the flowers in salads or sandwiches. You can also use them as a wrap to enclose other good ingredients. If you decide to cook with them, add them to your recipe at the last minute.

Use Caution

While growing hollyhocks is a wonderful pastime, know that these plants can cause dermatitis reactions in some people and pets.

You may find that you break out into a rash if bare skin comes into contact with them. If this is the case, simply wear gloves and protective clothing when tending them. The rash is harmless and can be alleviated with cortisone, zinc ointment, or jewelweed salve.

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