Merry Marigolds

By Harvest McCampbell

The name "marigold" originally belonged to several early blooming English plants; two that may be familiar are calendula and marsh marigold. These plants were often in bloom during the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary (March 25). In the early days of this celebration these spring flowers provided gold color to Mary’s celebration, thus they came to be called Mary’s Gold, which was later shortened to marigold.

Today, when we think of marigolds it is the bright, frilly, yellow, orange, and gold flowers that belong to the Tagetes genus that are most likely to come to mind. These Mexican natives bloom in yards and gardens through summer and fall here in Northern California. Like the marigolds whose name they borrowed they are sacred to the Native people of their homeland. Since pre-Columbian times Aztec Indians associated these flowers with celebrations of their beloved dead. The scent of marigold was believed to form a spiritual path that the souls of deceased family members could follow. The flowers were much used for decorating graves, alters, especially during the holiday that is now called the Day of the Dead. Over the centuries the lines between the ancient and modern religions have blurred; Mexican marigolds are now just as likely to be associated with the Virgin Mary as the original calendula and marsh marigold.

Rich with history and color, marigolds will soon be available in six packs at nurseries and garden centers. They like lots of sun and can be planted out as soon as the danger of frost has past. There are a number of varieties of marigolds available, some going by names such as African and French. These names were developed by the nursery industry to make their offerings seem more exotic and sophisticated, as if marigolds did not all ready have enough mystique of their own.

The African or Aztec Marigold (Tagetes erecta) is not only bold and beautiful the flowers are considered medicinal. These plants grow up to two feet tall and their sturdy yellow flowers are excellent in arrangements. The non-hybrid form commonly sold as Cracker Jack is rich in the anti-oxidant "lutein." Lutein is considered especially helpful for protecting the eyes from the ravages of sun and aging. Marigold flowers were once routinely fed to chickens because the lutein content gave the yolks and the chicken skin a rich color. Research on dietary supplementation with lutein and on the amount of lutein present in marigold flowers is still in progress. However, if you decide to give your Cracker Jack marigolds the taste test, tossing them into an occasional cup of tea or adding them to a salad is not likely to hurt a thing; people have been eating them for thousands of years.

French marigolds (Tagetes patula) produce small colorful flowers on neat compact plants. The flowers are available in shades of orange, bronze, maroon, and yellow. Popular with fans of heirloom flowers, these are the ones that have that strong marigold scent you may remember from Grandma’s flower bed. Modern hybrids and cultivars have been developed to minimize that characteristic marigold scent, but for organic gardeners, the stinkier the better. The smell is caused by a chemical known as "a-terthienyl;" it lends a natural insecticidal property to these small marigolds. Many organic gardeners use French marigolds as companion plants to reduce nematode damage. Nematodes are microscopic worms that can build up in the soil under certain conditions. When their infestation becomes severe they can damage crops and reduce garden yield. There have been studies that show that French marigolds also reduce infestations of cabbage worms, while at the same time they attract beneficial insects to the garden.

Mexican or sweet marigold (Tagetes lucida) is sometimes sold as Mexican or Spanish tarragon. In the kitchen it is used as a seasoning anywhere its sweet spicy flavor will bring advantage. While most marigolds have fancy lacy or scalloped leaves, Mexican marigold has narrow willow shaped leaves. These plants can grow up to 3 feet tall, if they are happy, and they often produce single bright yellow flowers late in fall. Like all other marigolds, they will not make it through our winters and must be replanted every year.

Spring seems to have sprung! Any time now you can start checking out local garden centers and nurseries for a selection of colorful marigolds. They can be tucked into the garden in any sunny spot. While, like most plants, they will do best if they have some nice loamy soil to sink their toes in, they will adapt to most any soil you have to offer. They do need to be kept evenly moist for the first 3 weeks after planting. After that they will survive occasional benign neglect. Keep an eye on your marigolds though, if it gets too hot and dry they will show you their need for water by looking sad and droopy.

Once your flowers have begun blooming you will have to decide if you want to "dead-head" so your plants will produce more flowers or if you want to let them produce seed for fall and next spring. If your plants are hybrids the seeds may not be worth saving. Many hybrid marigolds do not produce fertile seeds. Dead- heading involves removing the spent flower heads from the plants. It stimulates dormant buds to grow and produce more flowers. However, if you can’t be bothered with saving seed or with dead heading your marigolds might surprise you by producing volunteers next year all on their own.

Marigolds are also available as seed. The seeds like to be between 75 and 80 degrees to germinate. You can either wait until summer to sow the seed in the warmest spot in the garden or start them a little later this spring in six packs that you bring in at night until the young plants have three or four leaves. If you have a nice warm window, a special heating mat for starting seeds, or another really warm spot you can start seeds now. Just about the time they are ready to plant in the garden, the weather should be warm enough for them to thrive.

Marigold seeds are commonly available almost everywhere seeds are sold. If you have trouble finding the non-hybrid varieties mentioned here check out Richters Herbs. You can find them on line at: or call to request a catalog: 905-640-6677.

That’s all for now, but say tuned, next time we will be talking about some very colorful and delicious beans. Meanwhile you can find me out in the garden getting sun-burnt while I am Digging the Dirt.

Harvest McCampbell’s column, Digging the Dirt, appears in the Hoopa People Paper, the official newspaper of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, located in Hoopa California. Reprinted from The Hoopa People Paper, March, 2007. © 2007 Harvest McCampbell.

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