Hollyhocks are probably not your first thought when it comes to edible gardening, but these tall, bold beauties of our grandparents’ time may surprise you.
First, did you know that all parts of a hollyhock are edible? My chickens may not share that world view, but we frequently differ on menu items.
In addition to being edible, hollyhocks are surprisingly useful plants. Hollyhock stems make excellent starter firewood, and the roots have been used for centuries as medicine. While I do not make any medical claims about plants, research has shown that infusions of hollyhock roots may reduce stress. I’ll leave that to you.
Let’s see what else we can find out about these durable garden flowers.
Hollyhocks are members of the mallow family. Native to Europe and Asia, there are 60 or so species of hollyhock, or Alcea, with Alcea rosea being the most commonly grown. The Alcea genus includes all the hollyhocks, except for one species that is native to the western hemisphere, the streambank wild hollyhock (Iliamna rivularis).
While the streambank wild hollyhock is in a different genus, the blooms are still lovely. For this post, we will be focusing solely on Alcea hollyhocks.
Hollyhock flowers are impressive. Growing along the stalk like flagrant Brussels sprouts, large hollyhock blooms can be pink, red, apricot, raspberry, bluish pink, white, purple, or yellow. Their sturdy, unbranched stems can be equally impressive, rising 3 to 10 feet in the air, depending on the variety. There is even a nearly black cultivar, called ‘Creme de Cassis’.
Broad leaves may be toothed or lobed and grow on long stems called petioles. Both leaves and stems are generally covered with star-shaped trichomes, or hairs. While those hairs may irritate your skin, if you are sensitive, it is the hollyhock flower that grabs our attention.
Caring for hollyhocks
Hollyhocks are not particularly picky. They grow best in Hardiness Zones 3-8, can be grown in full sun or partial shade, and prefer good drainage. The only thing hollyhocks do not seem to like is dry soil. Here in California (Zone 9b), dry soil is the rule in summer, but a thick layer of arborist chips mulched over the area and planting them in a relatively protected corner of the yard seems to be help enough and they return every spring to fill my summer with gorgeous flowers. Being near a fence or trellis also protects these tall stems from wind damage.
To keep your hollyhocks healthy, cut stems back to 6” or so above soil level after flowering is completed. Continue to top dress and irrigate the area and new stems will appear throughout the growing season. In winter, cut plants back again and protect with a 6” layer of straw or mulch. Come spring, gradually remove this protective layer to help plants become acclimated. Once spring growth is in full swing, remove the straw and start thinning.
By removing the cut stems from the area and composting them, you will interrupt the disease triangles and thwart pests of hollyhocks.
Hollyhock pests and diseases
On the downside, like other members of the mallow family, hollyhocks are prone to mildew and rust and will attract weevils, mallow flea beetles, and orange tortrix moths. The caterpillars of a few other moths and butterflies, including painted ladies, will also chew on hollyhock leaves, as will slugs and snails, spider mites, and Japanese beetles. Aphids, capsid bugs, and cutworms may also cause problems.
Because they are prone to rust and mildew, hollyhocks should always be watered at ground level. Wet leaves nearly always attract disease. Diseased leaves should be removed and thrown in the trash whenever they are seen.
Hollyhocks and children
Hollyhock seeds are large and easy to work with, making them a good choice for a children’s activity. Hollyhocks do not like being transplanted, so it is better to sow seeds where you want them. A hollyhock’s long taproot doesn’t like being disturbed, once it begins its downward growth.
Traditionally, hollyhocks have been used to create secret garden spaces for children and solitary readers. Simply draw a line where you want you secret hideaway’s walls and plant seeds along that line. Seeds should be planted in groups of 3 or 4, placed 2 to 3 feet apart. Only cover lightly with soil, if at all, and keep the area moist but not soggy until germination occurs. Thin each group by snipping off all but the best one seedling at ground level. They may look tiny and lonely, at first, but these plants get large and need good air flow to stay healthy.
Before you know it, you will have a secret garden space of your very own, attended by the many bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators that love hollyhocks as much as we do!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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