They are suddenly everywhere, seemingly taller than ever before, the statuesque, the impressive, the flourishing. Tennis players aside, I mean Hollyhocks.
With their saucer-like petals and mighty stalks, towering and toppling over garden gates, Hollyhocks can’t fail to grab our attention. Rather like the willowy 5′ 11″ female tennis player, Johanna Konta, also did this week.
This 26 year-old’s star may have bee steadily rising for the past couple of years (in April, she beat Caroline Wozniacki in the final of the Miami Open – taking home £937,000 in prize money) but Konta has just played her way into the history books to become the first British woman to reach a Wimbledon semi-final since 1978 (bringing back those ol’ memories of Virginia Wade). Along the way she has also won over the SW19 crowd. At last, here was a contender, a determined challenger to the Williams’ reign.
No worries she lost to Venus yesterday, we are smitten now. Konta has proved herself a stunning player. And like the perennial Hollyhock, she’ll be back next year, perhaps even more majestic.
Globe trotter: Like Johanna (born in Australia to Hungarian parents, trained in Barcelona before moving to Eastbourne in 2005) the hollyhock has international roots. It’s likely the plant’s originated in China and travelled along the Silk road to the Middle East (Syria, Palestine and Iraq), India, and Southern Europe. It came to Europe via the returning Crusaders from the Holy Wars, around 1500, and then became a staple of medieval gardens. (The black version, similar if not identical to the ones grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello were known in Europe by 1629). Eventually their overwhelming height and broad blooms became associated with English cottage gardens.
Ambitious: Konta has her sights set high, “I’ve always wanted to become a grand-slam champion, and to become the best in the world. Without that, the victories aren’t as sweet or the defeats as motivating.” Hollyhocks are similarly associated with ambition. They began as plants for the wealthy, as depicted in early Chinese art, and in the walled gardens of the rich. So they became desired by aspiring Victorians. In fact, it is said that the reason they were grown so close to English cottages was to promote abundance in the household, in power and in wealth.
Un-starry: Johanna’s insta profile suggests she’s a homely girl, not overly concerned about glitz or glamour. The hollyhock isn’t demanding either, it prefers unfertilized soil and fully sunny spots. When it’s finished blooming and the leaves and stem begin to droop, the hollyhock produces a round disk of seeds so that it can reproduce – usually abundantly. So the plant is also associated with fertility; frequently given to new or pregnant mothers – for luck or to welcome the baby. They are also sometimes presented to newly married couples to wish them a large and happy family.
Foodie: Recent coverage of Konta’s eating preferences – fish, eggs, passion fruit and chia pods and ice-cream (“I take gelato very seriously.”), together with a liking for baking (cupcakes) has earnt her the reputation as a foodie. The hollyhock was once a sweet treat too; ancient Egyptians, as well as Romans used to eat the roots, which are rich in sugars, boiled and fried. In the middle ages, Hollyhock shoots were also given to calm labouring mothers, and babies were given them to chew on whilst teething. Later in the 1800s, Hollyhock sap was whipped, sugar added, then poured into moulds and sold as a sweet.
Creative: Off court Johanna has a passion for music – she says she’d love to go to a concert every night, even perform. The distinctive shape and form of Hollyhocks have inspired many an artist too; from Vincent Van Gogh’s, “Vase With Hollyhocks,” to Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Black Hollyhock, Blue Larkspur,” “Pink with Pedernal,” and “Calling All Bees,” by Alma Sanbern, and “La Puerta Azul,” by Gayle Faucette. “Hollyhock House,” the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright’s stunning Los Angeles commission, was named after the owner, Aline Barnsdall’s, favourite flower. At her request, hollyhocks were incorporated into the decoration of the house; all over from the roofline, walls, columns, and planters, to in the interior furnishings.
Healing: Recently Johanna injured her back against Angelique Kerber at Eastbourne, forcing her team to consider if she was going to be match fit for Wimbledon. No doubt modern medical treatment was used to get her better. Hollyhocks though have an ancient pedigree as a medicinal plant and they are also completely edible– root, leaves and petals. In the middle ages, a tea made from Hollyhocks was used to fight lung and bladder disease. Later it was used to treat constipation, ulcers and inflammation of the skin (a frequent ingredient in skin lotions), and bleeding. In fact, during the Tudor era, Hollyhocks were used to prevent miscarriages, by steeping the blooms in wine. Hollyhocks were also thought to break up and help pass kidney stones.
Protective: Johanna may have moved around a lot but she is fiercely attached to her family and team, even giving her winnings to her parents and re-investing in her support staff. Quite often you also see hollyhocks lining fences and gates because some believe that their statuesque appearance give an impression of protection and safety. In Japan, the hollyhock is believed to ward off thunderstorms and earthquakes and still today the Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival, May 15) is one of the most famous and most celebrated festivals in Japan. Thought to have originated around the 7th Century AD, hundreds parade in the colourful dress of the Heian Period (794-1185) – all with hollyhock leaves on their costumes – from the Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines.
If you have a young tennis player inspired by Konta in your house. Fill your garden with hollyhocks so that like Johanna, with a show of muscular strength and powerful presence, they are reminded to be enthusiastic, determined, and spirited. In other words get off our lazy arse…
And achieve something – in any shape or form!
“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