Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea)

In my opinion, if you are going to have a cottage garden, you have to have three plants: roses, larkspur and hollyhocks.  While many other plants will fit nicely into the cottage plan, these three are what I believe most people picture when they close their eyes and imagine a cottage garden.

Hollyhocks, with their tall upright stalks and big showy flowers, are the perfect plant for the back of a bed or border.  They come in a variety of colors and flower types (singles, semi-doubles and doubles) and will grow in just about any type of soil.  Some people say that the plants with deep colored flowers prefer sandy soils while the pinks, whites and other lighter colors prefer a clay soil.  So, wherever you live, there is a variety of this flower for you.

Here I am in May with three different varieties

Hollyhocks are members of the mallow family (Malvaceae).  This family includes the shrub Althea (Rose of Sharon) and hibiscus.  The flowers are edible and some folk remedies suggest making a tea out of them to treat “throat problems” and digestive issues (diarrhea).  Hollyhocks have been popular with gardeners for centuries.  They are believed to have originated in Asia but were brought to Europe by the 1400s.  The English really took to them.  In fact, the name hollyhock comes from the old English “Holyoke”.  Maybe this is the reason that my grandmother grew them and I love them so.  Since we are of good English stock I guess something in our genetics predisposes us to these lovely plants.

A volunteer hollyhock in my potager

Not all in my family have wonderful hollyhock memories.  My Aunt Sarah loves to tell the story of how my Uncle Bubba pulled up a hollyhock and used it to give her a whipping.  She still cannot look at a hollyhock without remembering what her brother did to her 70 years ago.  According to my Aunt Sara, hollyhocks were not just for corporal punishment at my grandparent’s house.   Evidently, my grandmother grew hollyhocks to hide their outhouse.  Their tall structure (some varieties can get 8’ tall) did a great job of camouflaging a very necessary but often maligned out building.

I don’t grow hollyhocks to hide anything or punish anyone.  I grow them simply because I love big showy plants that are easy to grow.  Hollyhocks are planted in the late fall or early winter.  They prefer full sun but can tolerate some light shade.  They can also survive temps in the teens for short periods.  The plant takes about six months from the time it first appears until it blooms.  It is also a good re-seeder so once you get it established you will have it forever.

This lovely arrangement featuring hollyhocks was made by my daughter Whitney

Hollyhocks are pretty heavy feeders so they do best in a bed that is well worked with organic material.  They are fairly drought tolerant but do require at least an inch of water per week to be fully productive.  You should not overwater or water from above as they are extremely susceptible to rust.  Rust is a very bad deal in the garden.  If you see reddish, powdery spots on the leaves of your plants, you have rust.  You can try and control it with a fungicide.  However, this is not organic and not always effective.  The best thing to do in my opinion is pull out the infected plants and burn them.  It is also recommended that you not replant in the area where the rust infection was spotted for three years.

It is still not too late to plant hollyhocks from transplants.  Many nurseries have them available now.  Why not pick up a few this weekend and plant them in the back of your beds.  These living antiques will instantly add charm to any bed and their tall form and beautiful flowers will delight you throughout the summer.

7 thoughts on “Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea)

    • September is the perfect time to plant them. Just cover them with about 1/4″ of soil and keep moist until they germinate. I keep my seeds in pill bottles. However, if you do that they have to be VERY dry. If you are worried there is still a little moisture in them i recommend keep them in an envelope or small grocery bag.

  1. Thank you for all the info. I have been growing Hollyhocks for about 5 years….seeds came from a family garden in Virginia. They are very hardy. I have only lost a few to something other than rust…a web type growth. I have about 100 seeds from last year that I didn’t plant…how long do they last? I’ve kept them in a dark dry place in a bag.

    • Thanks for the great comment. Most seeds can stay viable for upto two years when properly stored. However, that is just a ballpark. In reality, some seeds will stay viable for years. The way they determine “how long they last” is based on germination rates. At two years, you should get the average germination rate for that plant. After two years, the viability drops off fairly quickly. So, if hollyhocks have an 85% germination rate at two years, (I am about to make up numbers to illustrate a point), they will have like a 70% at 3 years and then 50% at four, etc. In short, if you have alot of seeds, even if they are old, you have a fairly decent chance of getting some to germinate.

      BTW, I am sad to say i pulled up all of my hollyhocks last week. The rust was just too extensive 🙁

      Thanks for the great question and thanks for reading!

  2. Thank you for an informative article and encouragement to grow Hollyhocks here in South Africa – of which I have purchased two.packets of seeds from a garden depot. The weather here seems optimal for planting as we approach the end of winter and are advancing towards Spring – just.short of two weeks.
    Without a backdrop of a solid wall to work with I will have two sections of trellis spaced apart and knee height
    In your opinion would the height be substantial to support the Base of the plants?
    Thank you,

    • Good luck with the hollyhocks. I always enjoy hearing from people overseas. I am not sure I understand your question completely. Hollyhocks do not really need support. However, they are definitely tall plants so wind could potential be a problem. If that is your concern I think a knee high support should be ample. That, combined with the roots should keep them upright in all but the worst of winds.

      • Thanks Jay, for your interest
        and the privilege to subscribe to your fabulous site!
        Margaret Joy Gordon

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