By Margie B. Klein
“The mind's bright chambers, life unlocks each summer with the hollyhocks.” - Edgar Albert Guest
I’m determined to grow hollyhocks, because if I succeed, I regrow my childhood. The days of my youth were spent in the pilot models of suburbia, that is, nothing corporate-planned or prefabricated. The subdivision we lived in consisted of parceled-out sections of the old Zinke farm in Wisconsin. The farmhouse still stood at the top of the hill, commanding recognition from all the newly developed acreage around it. Grandpa and Grandma Zinke, not yet wanting to give up all growing things, kept a huge garden there, visible from the road. There were colors and shapes to paint dreams with, but the hollyhocks were the things that really stood out. Extra tall spires heralded the location of the garden and beckoned the neighborhood children to come and visit. I remember knocking on the farmers’ door, just to ask to see the garden.
Those sentries at the top of the hill still haunt my remembrance, and in my reverie I dream of them living in my own garden, almost two thousand miles away. Now I’m the old gardener, and wish for a floral legacy like these. I’ve been trying for almost 30 years to grow hollyhocks in the desert. Rarely they appear in the Las Vegas landscape, in little patches that must have been blessed by the flower fairies. For in reality, they do not belong here. But you know how gardeners are.
Back in the old days, I imagine there was only one kind of hollyhock – single layer flowers climbing a six- foot stalk, in all the basic bright colors: red, yellow, pink, orange and white. They were the ‘outhouse flower,’ commonly seen around the dairy state’s farms. Their tall colorful presence not only decorated a rustic shed, but provided a little screening for the business done there. These days the beloved Alcea is available in some rare colors, like purple, rust, and even black. There is a striped one, 'Zebrina', along with bi-colored, dwarf ones, doubles and more.
I want them all. My dream has gone so far as to envision my own variety, bred from a cross between striped and pom-pom types. What mad gardener hasn’t dreamt of a flower of their own imagination, named after them? Alas, it could never happen in a garden where the simple Alcea rosea can’t even survive the biennium it needs to bloom.
It wasn’t for want of trying. I’ve bought every type and variant of seed, even from different countries. Seeds in germination trays, inside or out, seeds in situ guardingly watched, dormant roots planted in with blessings, full plants one-year out from flowering. Occasionally I am rewarded by a bloom here and there, on a lark. I accept that there will never be a wall-full of them. But I am still willing to try absolutely anything to get a bloom, and even after decades, my hope hasn’t died. I will plug on ‘til I myself am gone. Elsewhere, in more suitable climes, there will be rows upon rows of floral bowers, barring intruders but welcoming those on the wing who can reach their heights. They will inspire more children to play in the garden, making fairy houses with hollyhock flower roofs or running in and out of the floral stalks as if in a maze. The hollyhock dreams of childhood will persist.
Margie is retired from a 30-plus year in agriculture and natural resources. She's been a freelance writer for just as long. Margie is also now a serial Plant Love Story sharer. You can also read her earlier story "Miracle of the Amaryllis".
Photos courtesy the author.