The hollyhocks have been beautiful this year. They seem to enjoy a drought. I saw the first shoots, the first fresh green leaves peeping out in the spring and thanked God for the promise of loveliness. They grow so fast, from day to day visibly taller and stronger, buds forming on each long straight stem, and, until they open, no indication of the colour: that is always a wonderful surprise, because I scatter the seed at random, and the colours vary from a pale blush of creamy white to a rich deep purple by way of salmon pink, mauve and crimson. All in the same quarter of the spectrum, the dark green of the cypress hedge a perfect foil.
They always stand in harmony of hue, growing to different heights, like the score of a melody, their flowers marking the chords. Some more curious or watchful than others grow tall enough to peer over the top of the hedge and greet visitors. Maybe they pass on information to their shorter sisters? By the end of July their leaves are usually full of holes, where the caterpillars have nibbled, but a caterpillar is potentially a butterfly, so what does it matter if the leaves don’t look perfect? They are also serving a purpose and helping provide even more beauty.
And then as the summer moves into autumn, after mid-August, their petals start to wilt and their colours fade. Their stems dry and harden, unable to transport water and nourishment to the flowers. The petals fall, leaving a green ball, which dries into a small wheel of seeds. The leaves droop, turn brown, and what was a beautiful ballet becomes an untidy, unsightly mess of lumpy dry sticks and dead leaves.
Yet each plant produces a thousand seeds at least – a profusion of promises for the future, for next summer, if only they are sown and allowed to germinate, grow and flourish. And the dead vegetation breaks down into compost, fertiliser, food for the next generation of plants. So out of death and decay comes life and beauty in an eternal cycle.
I cut down the dead sticks and let the dried seeds fly where the breeze takes them, shaking some in the direction of the hedge, with a blessing. There are still many little wheels left on the dry stems, so I remove them – hundreds of them – with no idea of what colour the flowers had been in each case. These will also dry out, each one carrying within it all the genetic information it needs to produce an eight-foot high plant with broad, handsome leaves and simple but lovely flowers.
They will not all be sown. I think of the fields of cultivated sunflowers, or Dutch tulips. Hollyhocks have no commercial use, though they were once considered medicinal plants. If I had a field, perhaps I could cover it with hollyhocks, these cottage garden relatives of marsh mallow and hibiscus. But then, each year there would be a thousand-fold return … and potentially a thousand more fields of cream, pink, red and purple flowers nodding in the breeze and stretching into the sky, feeding the caterpillars and helping breed butterflies.
While I was cutting back the dead stems and leaves, and collecting the seeds with these thoughts going through my head, I was also thinking of certain friends of mine whose friendship has been badly damaged, and who were at that very moment attempting to talk about the hurts and pain they had caused one another, with a view to forgiveness and reconciliation. They, too, were deadheading and pruning, searching out and removing the ugly, dried-up parts of their relationship, and hopefully allowing those past experiences to become fertile compost in which the seeds of the flowers could be sown, could germinate, grow and thrive in accordance with the seasons. Here, too, I pray for a thousand-fold return, from tiny seeds of love and forgiveness to a field of lovely flowers.
The hollyhocks grew straight and tall,
Pushed out the faces of their flowers
Like watchmen peering from their towers
All along the garden wall,
From palest pink to purple caul,
In sun and rain, harmonious hours,
Smiling they exercised their powers.
But flowers die. Their petals fall.
They withered into wheels of seed,
Their fresh green stems grew hard and brown,
But serve a purpose yet as feed,
Still useful in their death, cut down.
The seed is sown for next year’s store:
Ten plants can yield a thousand more.