When we are small, it’s impossible to know how we’re being shaped by the things we see and experience. If you’d told me when I was a kid that some part of my brain was watching intently as my mother gardened, I would have never believed you. I had no idea why she went and dug around in the dirt of our tiny rented house. It seemed so boring. I was grossed out when she brought tomatoes in from outside and suggested I eat one.
Yet, somehow, some part of me must have been taking notes.
The only day I remember being absolutely mesmerized by the garden was one afternoon after a summer rain. My mother had planted a row of seeds – she didn’t speak English, so she chose her plants on pictures and prayers – and they’d sprouted up fast in the black brown earth. She went outside to check on them one day and I went outside, uninterested but bored.
The sun was emerging, as it sometimes does around here after a fast summer rain. That was what made the glint that caught my eye. The plants that had sprouted from my mother’s seeds had grown unimpressive small orange flowers, but their real charm was their leaves. They were unlike any other leaves I’d seen before, sort of rounded, faintly cup-shaped. They were upturned just enough to hold a single, fat drop of water in a perfect sphere, catching the sunlight like diamonds.
I’m old enough to remember the days when thermometers held mercury, and when parents let you poke it with something to watch it roll away. The water droplets reminded me of that – like liquid metal, but clear and clean. I wondered what about these leaves made the water behave so differently (it would be years before chemistry and lessons about surface tension) and I played with the leaves, rolling the water from one to another. From then on, every time it rained I went out to look at the magical leaves.
My mother stuck the packets on a stick in the ground so she could remember where she’d put what. I looked to see the name of the magic leaves. Nasturtium, it said. I had no idea how to pronounce it and no one to ask.
It would be decades since I would have a garden of my own, but in all the years I’ve had one, I’ve never been without nasturtium. I know a lot more about them now – like how to pronounce their name, for starters, but also that the flowers are good in salads and that there is a variety with variegated leaves, my favorite, and astonishingly red flowers. But, still my favorite thing about them remains the thing I first discovered about them: what they can do with a simple water droplet. They can turn something I see every day into a little sphere of wonder that reminds me of happy moments in my childhood and the thrill of discovering the beauty in this world.
That’s a pretty talented plant.