Poetic Injustice

Just a few feet away … just past the wireless internet connections and my hot-shot photo printer, and the window, of course … stand tall spheres of pinkish hollyhocks. That they’re there is nothing short of poetic injustice.

Last year I was accused of mowing these very same plants at grass height. In all honesty, my goal was to protect the plant next to them, the delightfully pungent horseradish. Those funny shaped leaves of what I since have learned was that of hollyhock rather than pigweed were left unmowed this spring and summer, and now they’re in full, strident bloom just outside my office window.

Poetic injustice? You see, I have this reputation of being a hollyhock hater. My mowing them down, as I did in my former backyard, only added to the reputation. That these were planted right outside the office window is seemingly just that, a poetic injustice even if this claim of hollyhock hatred is a mite unfair in my humble estimation. There is a story, as you might have guessed.

Buzzing hummingbirds are frequent visitors, a buzz that attracts the ear as much as the swaths of pink in the prairie breezes catch the eye.

Buzzing hummingbirds are frequent visitors, a buzz that attracts the ear as much as the swaths of pink in the prairie breezes catch the eye.

It starts with my former neighbor, a well meaning elderly woman who tried fostering her will and hollyhocks on others. This nose-against-the-window woman initially garnered our rapt attention when she, with the help of her long-suffering husband, tore into our asparagus with a spade to plant raspberries in their place. This was on our property, mind you, and without our permission. “I just wondered if you noticed that we dug out those horrible weeds and planted raspberries,” she said to me one sunny Saturday morning.

“I noticed. Those weren’t weeds,” I responded, reining in my anger … quite successfully I must add, “those were our asparagus.”

“There are so many things you can make with raspberries,” came her smiling retort without a hint of either hearing nor remorse.

Raspberries aside, we went to great expense and labor to plant a native prairie garden in our backyard. Our intent was twofold. One to reduce the use of a gas-sucking lawnmower, and two, to bring to life an entire biome of plants her generation had successfully denuded from the prairie. Oh, it became a beautiful garden. At the base were little and giant bluestem, Indian grass and side-oat grama. Inserted throughout were native forbs that included different varieties of coneflowers, wild onion, blazingstar and scores of other native flowers, blended in design for a summer-long show by Sally Finzel, of Morning Sky Nursery near Morris.

For those unfamiliar with prairie gardens, most are at best a three year project to enjoy that first full year of prairie ambiance. Year one is spent in preparation by controlling weeds through either chemical or mechanical means. Mechanical is more touchy, for when you rid the space of one species you disturb and give growth to the latent seeds of another. Year two is in the planting, and we planted expensive plugs we bought from the nursery. With luck, that third year is when the grasses and forbs are mature enough to actually resemble a patch of native prairie. This is when you can finally sit back in a hammock and enjoy the wind-blown grasses and sprinklings of color, along with all the birds and pollinators the patch attracts.

We always welcome pollinators to the farm, even on hollyhocks.

We always welcome pollinators to the farm, even on hollyhocks.

So, what does all of this have to do with hollyhocks? That third year in the lower corner we noticed what appeared to be a rather strange looking plant. Broad, light green three-fingered leaves began poking up through the grasses. It didn’t take long to recognize that these leaves were quite similar … actually, the leaves matched perfectly … to a wide swath of hollyhocks planted on the bank of the adjacent Hawk Creek. Along the backyards of all three households, and was such a source of joy for our meddling neighbor lady.

No matter how much digging I did with a spade, nor “painting” with the horrid Roundup herbicide, there was no ridding my patch of prairie of the hollyhocks where she admittedly dumped the seeds the previous late summer or fall. “Why,” I asked, “would you do that?”

“Hollyhocks are so pretty. They’ll look good and add color to your new garden!” she exclaimed, holding her folded hands over her bossom. It was obvious she didn’t understand, and would stomp off to her house when I went to attack the spindly devils.

It was in the midst of ridding my prairie garden of the hollyhocks when my relationship began with Rebecca, so it’s easy to see why I would have earned this sort of reputation. Hollyhocks were weeds in that prairie setting, and there was just no way of ridding them. In that “ribbing,” though, we have had some fun. Her mother sent us a pack of hollyhock seeds where she wrote in fine penmanship, “No Mow Hollyhocks!” Rebecca has “sneaked” in plantings around the outbuildings here on the farm and quite possibly had a hand in those just outside the office window. She has certainly chided me by noting that mine is the only real view of them. Poetic justice? Hardly!

She is also prone to drop in some historical tidbits such as that in the distant past hollyhocks were planted next to outhouses so visitors could say, “Oh, my! What beautiful hollyhocks you have!” before ambling off toward personal moments of relief. No one would follow along as they might for a garden tour, for “hollyhock” was “universal code” of excusing oneself for a toilet break.

The female oriole was a surprise visitor to the hollyhock.

The female oriole was a surprise visitor to the hollyhock.

You might say my resolve is eroding just a bit. As many friends and neighbors say when the story of my hollyhock hatred is told, “But, they’re my favorite flower. They’re so beautiful.” One even reminisced about using the big blossoms to make skirts for her play dolls as a little girl on her Iowa farm. I’ll begrudgingly admit they can be pretty … in their place, and that a prairie garden is not that place.

Outside my office window those air swaths of pink frequently catch my eye when the prairie breezes blow, and I can hear the hum of the hummingbirds that come for a poke. Bees, which are somewhat of a rarity around here, buzz around the blossoms. And, a female oriole surprisingly plopped herself onto the hollyhocks one morning this week, and indeed, all three made an appearance over a ten minute stretch. That, in itself, was pretty special, so, yes, my resolve is eroding … despite this poetic injustice!

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

2 thoughts on “Poetic Injustice

  1. To sacrifice a beautiful flower for a disgustingly tasting horseradish is way beyond poetic injustice, it’s an abomination…and I don’t particular favor hollyhocks.

  2. I’m not one to dote on flower gardens (vegetable gardens are much more practical) so a prairie garden may be the answer. I would need to do my research.
    Great writing as you drew me in to read the article all the way to the end. That is a great feat with someone as attention deficit as I can be.

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