A woman stood in front of my window. She seemed to be peering into the living room. Ours is a busy urban street, a tram stop across the road, a petrol station, cars speeding by, people rushing past on their way to the beach. No one lingers. I would like them to, at some point, once I develop my “front garden” – a paltry strip of bare soil next to the house, the width of a removed pavement tile. But not yet, there was nothing to look at for now. The woman kept staring. An intruder, a threat. I rushed out of the front door, ready to confront her. She turned to me, smiled and extended her hand, a hollyhock seedpod in her palm. Before I could open my mouth, she said “You have some beautiful plants here. I will just take a couple of seedpods. God asked me to collect and spread hollyhock seeds.”. It was the oddest statement and I was speechless. The woman turned around and walked away. I saw her opening her palm over a patch of soil near the tram line. Away with the fairies, I thought and forgot about the incident.
I had big plans for that strip of land. It faced south, perfect for sun loving plants. I aimed at a Mediterranean feel, some interesting colour combinations. A visiting card for my gardening ambitions. No place for hollyhocks – too domestic, too familiar, too ubiquitous. I found their towering stalks vaguely threatening, the large hairy leaves too crude, the gaudy flowers artless. I knew little about them as plants. Althea Rosea, a family of Malvacea, a distant cousin of the tropical hibiscus. “A favourite in any cottage garden”. To me, a plant to screen outhouses in Victorian times. A country gentlewoman would step out to admire the hollyhocks, much as an urban socialite would retire to powder her nose in during a theatre break. To me, they brought back images of white-washed walls of village houses back home, babushkas in colourful headscarves tending cabbage beds. They would have no place next to my new house.
For several years, a hollyhock war raged on in my “front garden”. At first, I tried to be civil, I attempted to move them. Have you ever seen a hollyhock taproot? It’s not for the faint-hearted. The plant is impossible to transplant. I started pulling out rogue seedlings. But nothing else would grow in that dry patch so close to the house. Clematis, lavender, asters, dahlias, fancy grasses, irises, sedums, phlox, delicate annuals – the plants and colour combinations came and went. Hollyhocks persisted. Most hollyhocks are biennial but you would be forgiven for not knowing that. They re-seed so generously, so surreptitiously, one plant smoothly becoming the next, they appear perennial. They are sly like that. And they seem indestructible, thriving on neglect and mistreatment. The poorer the soil, the more atrocious the growing conditions, the better and longer they flower.
Last year, I started reading up on them – one needs to know one’s enemy. It turns out hollyhocks are not even found in a wild habitat. They live near people, seem to have done for millenia. Their seeds have been found in Neanderthal graves and next to Egyptian mummies. Romans loved them. Brought from the Holy Land by the Crusaders, the plant became a staple in Medieval Europe. The Greek word “Althea” comes from “healing”. Full of medicinal properties, the plant was used for respiratory deceases, inflammation, in difficult labour. The flowers served as garnishes, were pressed for cordials. And there seemed to be so much symbolism around them – of fertility and abundance, of endurance in all manner of circumstances. Of a circle of life. Of ambition, too, which I thought was ironic. A potion made of hollyhocks, marigolds, hazel buds and wild thyme would allow one to see fairies. Maybe that woman by my window had drunk it.
The more I read, the more difficult I found to pull out those seedlings. I finally had to acknowledge that their flowers looked like skirts of fairies, their petals like crushed velvet, their trumpets a perfect fit for the furry body of a bumblebee.
Then last summer was hot, dry, seemingly endless. As my mother lay dying, I let many things go. We had fought her high blood pressure, her heart problems for years. In the end, it was a wrong war. Cancer carried her away in weeks. I neglected the garden. Most of the plants in the “front garden” burnt and hollyhocks finally took over. Their floral display was stunning. I collected the seeds.
In the culture of Eastern Slavs, hollyhocks are a symbol of love for one’s land, loyalty to the spiritual tradition of one’s ancestors. Those roots! Strong, going deep. They are said to have strong energy, to keep love and tradition in the family. A forgotten song in Ukrainian comes back to me. “Next to the house, hollyhocks fell asleep, the crescent moon came out to rock them gently. And only Mother is awake, waiting for her child”.
I have a personal meaning to add to the string of symbols hollyhocks represent. For me, it has become an unexpected symbol of relinquishing control. Sometimes, what is asking to grow on a piece of land is what the land needs. Acceptance is what we need to heal. It may be the only thing.
I have since moved the vestiges of my horticultural ambition to the back garden. Hollyhocks have won but I suppose there are worse enemies to lose a war to. I would use the flowers in salads and perhaps look into that cordial. I am also taking up “guerilla gardening”, except this time, hollyhocks are on my side. I spread the seeds along the tram line.