Natural Wonders

Is beauty not as essential to human happiness as nutrition? – Twin Cities

A guest of mine from Atlanta summers at her family’s cabin in the Brainerd area. She told me that for the first time in her memory (she’s about my age), it was hotter here in Minnesota this summer than it was in Georgia.

That’s pretty hot.

Bonnie Blodgett

One good thing is what with the steamy summer of 2021, ol’ man winter doesn’t look quite so bad. That’s partly because our new winters are just as unseasonably warm as summer is, but mostly because we are sick and tired of the heat.

From that perspective, fall nowadays no longer feels like the harbinger of doom but a welcome relief. Gardening is fun again. The combination of cooler weather and some rain means no more lugging around the garden hose when we’d rather be making bouquets and picking tomatoes.

Yesterday I mowed my lawn for the first time in weeks. The grass was actually green.

The hummingbirds are more active, too, and they are thoroughly enjoying the “Black and Bloom” salvia that’s finally blooming abundantly instead of falling over due to thirst.

I admit that during a drought my flowering plants get the short end of the garden hose (so to speak) and the veggies get the long one.

Most gardeners I know make the same decision. Some of us call it Sophie’s Choice. In the novel by William Styron turned film starring Meryl Streep, a mother sacrifices her daughter to save her son during the Holocaust, knowing that he is more valued by society, not because she loves her daughter less.

Sophie’s grief over her “choice” drove her insane. I am not so tortured by my gardening choices, not that they are any less draconian from the perspective of my victims, in this case plants that are beautiful but not, alas, edible.

But don’t we need beauty too?

That is a fascinating question. I think it was peer pressure that made me throw the ornamentals under the bus. I live alone and don’t really enjoy cooking for one or eating alone either. That’s why I give most of my produce away.

Plus, I can buy fresh organic veggies at my local co-op, better tasting than what I grow myself. I can’t buy plants as pretty as my homegrown garden beauties, at least not to my eye and definitely not for the same low price as I can a fresh cucumber.

I’m only just now asking this ornamental-versus-edible question, after a lifetime of not thinking about it.

And that speaks volumes about the question as well as the answer. Most gardeners I know speak with great pride of their vegetable gardens but are loath to brag about their beauty queens. When the latter do come in for a compliment, it’s the service they perform for pollinators that’s mentioned.

Some gardeners (including myself) describe their roses as “my guilty pleasure.”

Another trick is to pretend that we grow flowers for the pleasure of passersby. Heaven forbid that we should enjoy our plants’ beauty! That would be selfish.

This instinct to play down the spiritual nourishment we derive from beautiful plants is one reason why I was willing to admit that I’d won a Blooming St. Paul award a few years back. This award goes to a front-yard garden, one that is planted to beautify the city. It’s a public service, in other words.

Oh, really?

And were it genuine, would such a selfless attitude even be rational? Is beauty not as essential to human happiness as nutrition? Is it not food for the soul, like music, literature and all those other artful trifles we need to get us through the dreariness of life?

What would we be without our souls?

There was a time when I might have answered, mere animals.

Nowadays I know that there is no hierarchy in nature. If there is a Supreme Being, he (or she) regards the tiniest microbe as just as valuable to the harmony of the whole as the tallest redwood, and plants and animals also of equal value. And humans, being animals, of critical importance to a healthy planet too.

The truth of this is on display in my garden as I write. The salvias are finally blooming and able to attract the usual bumper crop of hummingbirds.

Just how they do this is still unclear.

Is it the flower’s color or scent or shape? No one knows. Maybe all three.

I read recently that hummingbirds have a powerful sense of smell and can nose out a threat from a considerable distance — yes, literally through their long proboscis.

A study that was designed to test this magical species’ response to various scents succeeded in identifying odors that trigger fear in hummingbirds.

I know hummers are jumpy — just by walking out the back door, I can scare them away — but I guess I always assumed it was seeing me, not smelling me, that set off the alarm bells.

Speaking of natural wonders, a friend arranged for me to tour the garden of a friend of hers, Leslie Pilgrim, who lives in Mendota Heights and has long been an active member of Wild Ones. Leslie is also the founder of Neighborhood Greening, one of whose projects was planting natives along the roadsides in her own suburban neighborhood.

As we approached Leslie’s cul de sac, my friend asked me to guess which of the ‘60s vintage ramblers belonged to Leslie.

This was like asking me if I could spell my own name.

I pointed to the house directly in front of us. Its wood siding wasn’t painted. Instead, it had been stained to bring out the wood’s natural grain and golden-brown color. Also, it had solar panels on the roof.

But these weren’t the dead giveaways. What told me who lived here were the plants. They were all native.

Leslie’s yard is shady. I would call it “woodland prairie.”  This is owing to the presence of several white pines.

She did not begin with a plan so much as a wish list. On that list were natives of all species … from groundcovers to trees.

She is especially drawn to white pines. None of hers is more than 20 years old. That’s because she planted them.

They create just enough shade to provide the sort of dappled light that is the prettiest garden light of all, in my opinion, and just enough for sun-loving natives like rudbeckia, monarda, liatris, goldenrod, coneflower and Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum).

Such plants need at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. Since the sun is usually coming at an angle, not straight down, and since pine trees are not solid like houses but composed of limbs that move about, the plants do fine.

The garden floor is a thick bed of pine needles that lead from the street through the large side yard to a private back garden. A large deck runs along the house. There is a tinkling fountain. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the many bees and butterflies Leslie’s native plants attract.

(She does not encourage honeybees, as they have lately been found to be out-competing some native bees, she tells me.)

The abundant shade in Leslie’s garden does mask such “flaws” as are the hallmark of prairie gardens. Some call them “coarse.” I call them an acquired taste.

Natives have been spared such manmade esthetic judgments as that coneflowers are prettier if they have daisy-like petals instead of the sloping ones the species was born with, which make them resemble badminton birdies.

This is a delightful feature, to my eye. I also happen to think coneflowers are prettiest in pink, the deep purplish pink the sloping petals come in, surrounding the large russet- colored center.

Of course, all good fashionistas know that variety is the spice of life.  We humans do love to change things up.

I just prefer my coneflowers the way nature designed them, and so do the pollinators.

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