The quiet power of beauty

Story by Jill McSheehy

The reddish-orange trumpeted orbs glowed in the late afternoon sunlight. As I sat comfortably on my patio furniture, I couldn’t take my eyes off the beauty. 

It was a late April evening, and as I considered the rare comfort of enjoying this outdoor moment in Arkansas — not too cool, no humidity, no mosquitoes — I also reflected on the predictable cadence these evenings had begun to take on.

Two months into “social isolation,” most days felt like a carbon copy of the days before. Though, I admit the clear calendar carried with it a welcome rest, it also brought sorrow for things lost. I learned to hold these paradoxical feelings simultaneously, realizing one could exist alongside the other.

As each thought fluttered through my mind, I still could not break my gaze off this brilliant nasturtium flower. I had planted it in a new raised bed kitchen garden. I chuckled at myself because, although, nasturtium flowers and leaves are edible, this is not why I planted it in the kitchen garden. No, this nasturtium existed here solely because of its beauty. 

I’ve come a long way, I had to admit.

In my seven years of vegetable gardening, I’ve shrugged off the notion of growing flowers. Sure, I might plant a few in hanging baskets for good measure, but my weedy overgrown flowerbeds in the front yard testified to my laser-like focus on the vegetable garden. The one that really mattered (or so I thought).

What was the purpose of flowers, really? I enjoyed their beauty, of course, but without function, I saw little point. 

But like many changes in life, my attitude shift with flowers came gradually. They edged into my consideration strictly through their functional benefits. I learned that flowers could help the vegetable garden as they attract pollinators and pest-eating beneficial insects. Sign me up, then. If flowers increase the pollination rate of my vegetables and keep me from having to share my garden with aphids, I’m in. 

Then the unthinkable happened. Beauty began to nudge open this closed, pragmatic mind.

Orange calendula greeted me on May mornings while offering me an up-close look at the beneficial syrphid flies it attracted in the afternoons. Towering sunflowers brightened the western sky in July, while bees coated themselves in its pollen. Baby pink cosmos drew my eye in September evenings while butterflies and bees scoured the landscape for early autumn nectar. 

And while I originally planted nasturtium to help with menacing pests in my garden, I fell in love with their lily-pad leaves and delicate yet striking flowers. It was this I couldn’t take my eye off of on this mundane April evening. 

I find it ironic, indeed, that while Americans are taking up vegetable gardening at a pace rivaling that of our grandmothers’ Victory Gardens, I — the functional one — am making room for more flowers. 

Granted, most of those flowers perform double-duty: 

Calendula will be made into salve, lotions, and balms

Yarrow will be dried and kept on hand for minor cuts

Lavender will be infused into calming oil for nighttime relaxation

Sunflower seeds will be roasted for a healthy snack

Chamomile will be dried for calming teas

Echinacea will be tinctured for aiding the immune system during cold & flu season 

But some flowers will exist in my garden solely to provide beauty in the midst of the functional. Though, I doubt I’ll ever become a full-fledged flower grower, I’m embracing the multitude of gifts flowers provide the garden, the body, and the spirit. 

In these uncertain times, we could all use a few more flowers to brighten our days.