Earlier this year, in late July, and as an act of great anticipation of Halloween and the Day of the Dead, I went to the garden to sow seeds of one of my favorite plants. Known by many names, including flor de muerto (flower of the dead), cempasúchil (from the Nahua cempasúchitl, incorporating the root, xochitl, for flower), and African marigold, Tagetes erecta is a perennial plant that produces tufts of cheery orange blossoms resembling pom-poms. They smell at once pungent, fresh, floral, and aromatic. They’re said to keep away pests in the garden. And they have been used for ages to adorn graves and altars in central Mexico for Todos Santos (All Saints Day) and Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) at the beginning of November.
Over the weeks and months, I watched as my marigold seeds sprouted, grew, and reached up toward the lovely late summer sunshine. The lacey greenery made way for flower buds forming at the ends of the stalks. And then, in late October, just in time to see the flower buds begin to open into full flowering beauty, I had to take a trip. (Traveling: the bane of gardeners but the joy of adventurers.) But I wasn’t going just anywhere; I was headed to central Mexico, the native homeland of the marigold!
So it turns out I missed my marigolds’ flowering but traded it for the experience of witnessing more marigolds in flower than I had ever set eyes on before. In Tlaxcala, Mexico, marigolds adorned practically everything. Pots of them were nestled in with other varieties of potted plants around businesses in the main plaza, flower strings stretched across building facades and doorways, and women wore them in their hair during a parade of catrinas (skeletons). These flowers seem to take on an almost mythic quality as they overflow one’s awareness and attract the spirits of those who have departed to visit their loved ones for these few special days each year. (Additionally, it is not just Mexicans who appreciate marigolds and put them to use. Check out this National Geographic article about marigolds in Mexico, India, and beyond.)
Marigolds are not just a symbol and ornament but are also useful in food, medicine, and dye. The flowers can be sprinkled on salads or other foods, and the leaves are incorporated into salsas throughout the Americas (I learned of it as huacataya in Bolivia, where I ate it in the spicy, delicious sauce called llajua). The leaves and flowers are used in traditional medicine for gastrointestinal ailments, among other uses. And for good reason: the plant is active against intestinal worms and their eggs (check out this article). Furthermore, marigold flowers can be used to dye cloth for textiles and to add color to butter and, weirdly, poultry feed so that egg yolks appear a brighter orange.
This useful and happy flower has a long history of use and continues to brighten our lives and our gardens. I plan to grow it again next year. Hopefully, I’ll manage to see it in bloom.