Where Have All The Hollyhocks Gone?

I’ve never stopped loving hollyhocks. With foxgloves and sunflowers, they are the mainstay of a happy ‘comfort’ garden. My comfort garden. Yet, look around: there are no hollyhocks anywhere in my slice of paradise. I cannot understand why. Did I get too cool for them? Was I rejecting my past? Have I forgotten my way? No, no and, no. Nothing so deep or intriguing. It just came to be so.
But look at gardens everywhere. So very few have these jolly flowers anymore. Unlike the much maligned gladiolus, they did not ever fall out of favor. In fact, ever so often, new and improved hollyhocks have been introduced. In stylish new colors. Longer lasting. Taller or shorter varieties. And still, they are not observed in abundance. I’m perplexed.
Curiously, almost all of us recall hollyhocks from our childhood. There are invariably nostalgic associations with this flower. I do believe that like comfort foods, there are comfort plants. Certain flowers, trees or even seed pods give us that same sense of solace as the foods do.
Just like the foods ( think mashed potatoes, mac ‘n’ cheese, rice with butter, hot cocoa), comfort plants hark back to our childhoods. To simpler, innocent, carefree times. One connects the flowers with cherished people like a favorite grandparent, an aunt who never talked down to you, a loving parent. Chances are they grew those plants in their gardens.
Thankfully, unlike the consoling foods which are often no longer considered healthy in large quantities, comfort plants can be grown in abundance. So why aren’t we doing just that? As trends come and go, we are led to consider other plants. Tastes change and we choose flowers that reflect who we are at that point. Depending on the style of the garden, specific selections are made. Similar to clothing, there are the dictates of fashion that guide us in the garden. One outgrows so many things so why not flowers?
I used to have hollyhocks in my garden till I fine-tuned it. It began to have a style, a real design, a philosophy of sorts. Not that hollyhocks ever contradicted any of these. They simply got left behind.
The same happened to cleomes which I’ve also rediscovered with joy akin to a child who has come upon a favorite stuffed animal from babyhood sitting in a corner of the attic.
I’ve come to the conclusion, that no matter what sort of garden one has, some if not all of one’s comfort plants should be included. If they cannot be integrated in the main design style of the garden, then perhaps a small section can be commandeered somewhere to offer a daily reminder of those treasured memories. For myself, I’m going to replant cleomes, hollyhocks, nasturtiums and giant sunflowers. The foxgloves and lilacs are already present. Sophisticated and chic they may not be but then, neither am I.

White hollyhocks
Pink hollyhocks

Summer exuberance

Summer exuberance



My watercolors of the flowers:








(c) 2013 Shobha Vanchiswar

Holy Heuchera!

I’m in love with Heuchera. This is not a love that made me swoon and swept me right off my feet but one that has grown from a long friendship. A friendship that came about by sheer happenstance. Isn’t that the way so many good relationships develop? When we aren’t trying too hard or analyzing too much, when we’re more relaxed and open to receive what or who comes our way. And so it was with me and Heuchera.

Several years ago, I was trying to add visual oomph to an oft overlooked, shady part of the garden. Amongst the assorted greens, I added the almost acid yellow of Hackonechloa grass and needed a dark color to balance this palette. Shade tolerant, purple or burgundy hued, low to medium height and easy to grow were the characteristics that were required. At the nursery, as I trolled the aisles of happy perennials screaming “pick me!” and trying hard to suppress my impulse to adopt them all, I came across a plant that appeared to fit the bill. That was how I first met Heuchera. Rosettes of obsidian, palmately lobed leaves and quite unpretentiously handsome overall, it was ideal. An appropriate addition to the garden.

Once I realized how dependable this newcomer was, I looked for more to fill in various shady corners of the garden. To my sheer delight, I discovered that Heuchera come in a variety of shades ranging from dark to chartreuse to variegated. A multitude of hybrids between various Heuchera species has been developed. One could make a whole bed of the many Heuchera to create a stunning botanical rendition of a Flemish tapestry. Commonly called coral bells, because of the coral colored flowers on long racemes that rise well above the main body of the plant, Heuchera are not generally selected for their blooms. Its the foliage that make them so interesting and vital. FYI – the flowers also come in white, green and red colors.

That they are hardy, virtually pest free, shade loving and easy to propagate by division only increases their value in the garden. I’ve had Heuchera in pots that stay outside and unprotected all winter and to date, they have survived remarkably well. That is impressive don’t you agree?

But wait, it gets better. Heuchera are true North American originals! They grow in different habitats so there’s something for a garden anywhere in the world. The leaves are edible though I have not been inclined to nibble at them. Natives of the American northwest used to make a digestive tonic from the roots. Again, I’m not recommending that anybody try out a recipe. Though personally, I’m happy to know that they are standbys in case of famine or a sudden inclination towards gluttony.

With a truly extensive array of blossom sizes, shapes, colors, foliage types and geographic range, they are quite valuable in any garden. Besides, who can resist cultivar names like ‘Burgundy frost”, “Raspberry regal”, “Smokey rose”, “Purple petticoats” or, “Chocolate veil”?

I do believe this love affair is for keeps.

A Heuchera trinity

A Heuchera trinity

Greenhouse with Heuchera outside


(c) 2013 Shobha Vanchiswar

Love At First Sight

Have you ever had the experience of encountering a place that immediately finds a home in your heart? When you feel inspired and energized by the promise it holds? On the morning of October 5, 2012, thats exactly what happened to me. That was the day I was introduced to Untermyer Gardens in Yonkers, NY.

Until a year and a half ago, I had never even heard of the place. Then my friend and horticulturist extraordinaire Timothy Tilghman, took up a job there. I was made aware that the garden had flourished in the early half of the last century and then went into serious decline. It was all but forgotten while weeds smothered the place and vandals went about wrecking it. I hoped Timothy knew what he had accepted. It wasn’t just the job of maintaining this garden but he had to first bring it to life. Thats more than mere application of horticultural knowledge. It takes great vision, curiosity and passion.

Through mutual friends and mainstream media coverage, I followed Timothy’s spectacular progress at Untermyer. I kept intending to visit but life has a habit of getting in the way and it wasn’t till this particular October Friday that I finally got there. On this bright, beautiful day, Timothy waited to show me his ‘baby’.

There is plenty in the archives to give the original plans and making of the original gardens that Mr. Untermyer himself oversaw and created. So I shall not go into the history and other details. But I strongly recommend that one go to the website www.untermyergardens.org. to learn more as well as to see photographs of then and now. I assure you it is worth the time and effort. What I want to convey here is my personal response to this garden.

Spying the walled garden through the tall doors set in a high, crenelated wall is a real tease. One is lured in. It is entirely possible that on entering this garden and seeing the Persian/Mogul inspired design, my own Indian heritage influenced how much at home I felt. It was as though I was visiting an old royal garden in northern India. But it was more than that. It felt right. Perched across from the Palisades, overlooking the Hudson river, this garden was situated carefully and deliberately. The designer had known exactly what he was doing. Which brings home the point that for a garden to be a true success, it must not only be laid out well but it must be assigned to the appropriate site.

The plantings are just lovely. Dramatic and yet, they do not compete with the strong bones of the garden. Even in restoration, a garden must evolve. Timothy has selected plants that are visually really attractive. On closer inspection they reveal how clever he has been in his choices. The Japanese hollies with New Guinea impatiens bordering the water canals are spot on. Elsewhere, he’s used plants that are hard working and easily obtained. Anybody can try these plants in their own gardens. I got the distinct feeling Mr. Untermyer would’ve approved.

And thats what makes Untermyer such a wonderful classroom for all gardeners. The original plans are available to show how the owner along with landscape architect/designer Welles Bosworth created the various gardens with care and purpose. There are photographs and other information available for study and they provide a wealth of answers to the myriad questions that Timothy must ask in order to restore all of the gardens to their former state of glory. His progress will be instructive at so many levels.

After showing me around the walled garden and allowing me sufficient time to drool over it as well as the mosaic pool set just below to its side, Timothy led me on a horticultural adventure. The initial discovery of various ruins and debris after clearing decades of overgrowth had been absolutely thrilling for him. Now he could match photographs to actual locations on the property. His joy in showing me all of what he has unearthed and what still remains to be done was contagious. Whether it was the authentic Roman pillars or the old carriage trail or the rose arbors or where the daffodil drifts explode in spring or the Temple of Love, I was caught up in the excitement of coming upon the remains and envisioning them at the height of their times. This was history, archeology, architecture, horticulture and The Secret Garden all rolled into one exhilarating experience.

An astounding amount of work still remains to be done but what has already been achieved is just as impressive. Here is a garden brimming with such potential and possibilities. It absolutely must be restored or we will lose one of our nation’s great gardens.

There is an Untermyer Conservancy to which donations can be made. And while one waits for funds to roll in and the work to be done, word about this treasure must go out, visitors should come and all together we can bring this garden back to the way it ought to be. We owe this to ourselves and to generations ahead.

I’m already planning future visits when I can paint en plein air while at the same time acquire new gardening wisdom.

(c) 2012 Shobha Vanchiswar

Entrance to the walled garden

Into the garden

The view of the Palisades from the walled garden

The temple

The mosaic work

Roman pillars

To gardens yet to be restored

A viewing place. There used to be a waterfall here.

With Timothy Tilghman