The first thing we hear about the village is that it's made up of "twenty-odd wooden houses that had stone courtyards with no flowers […] on the end of a desertlike cape" (3). Now jump to the women's speculations about the drowned man's abilities: "He would have put so much work into his land that springs would have burst forth from among the rocks so that he would have been able to plant flowers on the cliffs" (4). Immediately we've got contrast between the world of the villagers and that of the drowned man. His arrival is like a splash of color against their grey landscape. If the village is dry and colorless, the drowned man brings with him the possibility of lively springs and bright flowers.
And sure enough, this possibility is soon realized. As the women prepare for the drowned man's funeral, they go to get flowers from neighboring villages. They return "with other women who could not believe what they had been told, and those women went back for more flowers when they saw the dead man, and they brought more and more until there were so many flowers and so many people that it was hard to walk about" (12).
At the end of the story, notice the specific details of the villagers dream for a better future:
They were going to paint their house fronts gay colors to make Esteban's memory eternal and they were going to break their backs digging for springs among the stones and planting flowers on the cliffs so that in future years at dawn the passengers on great liners would awaken, suffocated by the smell of gardens on the high seas. (12)
This is a far cry from the "desertlike cape" we first met at the beginning of the story.
The flowers touch on one of the major themes of Márquez's story: the ability of the truly great to inspire others to greatness. What does this have to do with flowers? Check out "What's Up with the Ending?" We'll pull it all together.