The Case of the Elusive Black Hollyhock

You can’t always get what you want…

Some people want expensive clothes and finery.

Some people want a yacht.

Some people just want food on the table.

I want a black hollyhock.

Gardening can take up as much space as you allot to it. I don’t have nearly enough space to do what I want, so most of my gardening takes place in containers. My gardening career began with vegetables, but then the joy I found in flowers unearthed a whole new pleasure.

I attribute part of my love for flowers to Georgia O’Keeffe. She liked painting abstracts of flowers. She had a way of showing parts of a flower that a normal person would walk right by and not notice. She painted them big.

“I’ll paint it big — I’ll paint what I see — I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.” -Georgia O’Keeffe

Now about those hollyhocks…

Living for a few years in Santa Fe also curated my taste for flowers, and I began to see what O’Keeffe saw in them. But specifically, it was the presence of hollyhocks. Around every corner you turned, there they were. They can scratch an existence out of a crack in a sidewalk and thrive. Even more so, it was the black hollyhocks that captured my imagination. Really, they are an intense purple, but especially when seen in the shade; they appear black. Though she described them as “blackish-red,” when she painted one, the work was titled “Black Hollyhock” (1930).

I bought my first home in Skokie, Illinois, in my younger adult years, and I desperately wanted to do a total landscaping makeover. But with a job that required extensive travel, two small children, and a demanding wife, there wasn’t much time left for my interests. I could only dabble in gardening here and there.

“Still — in a way — nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven’t time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia O’Keeffe

Hollyhocks are biennials. In most climates, they grow only a small plant the first year you sow the seeds. They shoot stalks up to 9 feet high in their second year or season, brimming with big blooms.

Not being able to find the seed in the Chicago area and without the Internet, I was able to find some on one of our trips back to Santa Fe. In a climate like Chicago’s, as long as you plant the seeds by August 1 at the latest, the plant will be established enough to sustain the winter months, and they’ll give you big stalks with a plethora of blooms from mid-to-late summer the following year. They reseed easily, so you can enjoy their lovely display every year as long as you just let them be. They respond minimally to deadheading on a much smaller scale.

Once back in Skokie, I planted the seeds and watched them grow into the plants that would wield unending beauty the next year.

My ex-wife had a way of destroying things that were important to me when she was feeling vindictive. She was an inordinately angry person anyway, and arguments about things big and small would put the house in chaos daily. On one of those days when she called me at work to pick a fight, I came home to find all of the hollyhocks that were on the precipice of blooming pulled up, lying in repose on the sidewalk. And that was that.

After 40 years of denial, I got a divorce, had sex with a man, and moved into my first boyfriend’s home. It wasn’t on my mind at the time, but I saw another opportunity to grow black hollyhocks. So as not to impede on his pre-existing landscape, I planted them in the alley, near the trash bins. They do take to abysmal soil. They grew big and strong, and after two years, they were taller than the 8-foot fence, teeming with blooms. I collected all of the seeds that I could, while I could, for I didn’t know if I would ever grow them again.

Then, eight years later, we broke up. Glad I collected those seeds!

I did not plan on writing about my love life in the context of this story, but I am starting to see similarities.

Being single for three years was great for my soul. But I lived in a dark, garden-level apartment (common in the Chicago area) without any real space to grow plants.

Then “he” walked into my life (well, via Match.com), and another relationship took hold that I knew would last forever.

We lived in the City in a mid-rise condominium building that just happened to come with an 1,800 square-foot private rooftop deck. He had absolutely no interest in gardening, but I knew I could create a container garden that would be the talk of the neighborhood. Well, of our friends anyway. There’s not much talking-to-your-neighbors in these buildings, save for the bickering between tenants.

I planned a new garden every year, using a combination of seeds and live nursery stock. There were 42 containers to fill. About a third of the garden was dedicated to vegetables. Root crops, lettuces, herbs, the obligatory tomatoes, eggplant, okra, cantaloupe, even potatoes. The only problem I ever had was with Brussels sprouts. Aphids. Never again! There were also three trees, including a perfectly-shaped Colorado Blue Spruce. It was my baby.

I didn’t know how hollyhocks would do in containers, but the ones I used were huge, and a couple of years later, I finally had my second batch of this much-revered flower.

From those seeds, I planted many in-between our buildings — again, shitty environment, but that’s where they fare well. They were the tallest I ever grew, reaching close to 12' high.

Then, eight years later, we broke up. Glad I collected those seeds!

Leaving Chicago after 33 years was very emotional. In the plant sense, there wasn’t much that could be taken. I had about two months to process the split, find a place to live and separate two people’s belongings that were comingled. It was a divorce.

There was a courtyard behind my townhome in my new city: Albuquerque. It was a perfect place to grow hollyhocks, so I planted the seeds immediately so that they would have a head start for the next season. They grew and overwintered, but the resulting flowers were disappointing. The seeds' DNA was acclimated to the weather in Chicago, not the desert southwest's hot, dry sun. They only got about four feet tall.

I did not collect the seeds.

I will soon buy new seeds from plants raised in New Mexico, and by 2022, I ought to have some more black hollyhocks. I’m not sure I’ll have a new relationship, though. That hasn’t gone so well for me. If it did, then I’d probably lose my flowers.

For now, anyway, I’ll take the hollyhocks.

My life in the context of 20th-century history and pop culture — infused with a dose of fun (where appropriate!) More to come when I get my sea legs on here.

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