Many observers mention the bright yellow flower used as an offering on graves on altars and graves in Mexico on Day of the Dead. Sometimes it is called a marigold, the Tzeltals call it tusus and Brenner writes about the pungent, yellow cempoalxochitl. As with bird names, flower names are often difficult to translate, so it’s possible all three of these are the same flower.
Marigolds have confusing names. Tagetes erecta is the most common variety, and is known as the African marigold, though it is not native to Africa. Tagetes patula is called the French marigold, though it’s not native to France. Tagetes lucida is known in Mexico as Pericon. It is used to make a sweet, licorice-flavored tea.
It also appears under the names of Spanish tarragon and Mexican mint marigold. Then there’s tagetes minuta, also known as Mexican marigold, which, according to Wikipedia, is an important culinary herb with a flavor like a mixture of sweet basil, tarragon, mint and citrus.
In Europe, the flower was named in honor of the Virgin Mary: Mary’s gold. (The calendula is also called a marigold, or sometimes, a pot marigold.) Although the genus name, tagetes, is often derived from an Etruscan prophet, Tages, that seems unlikely. This is a New World plant which first appears in 16th century European herbals under the name, tagetes, which may derive from tanacetum, as it has the same strong odor as tansy.
The marigold—one species is called tagetes azteca–was brought to Europe by Portugese explorers who found it growing wild in Brazil in the sixteenth century. The flower was sacred to the Aztecs who used it to decorate shrines and temples. It was sometimes used as a symbol of the Spanish conquest, the red stains on the yellow blossoms representing the blood shed by the Spanish. It was also called flor de muerto, the flower of death.
Friar Duran writing about the Aztec culture described a festival called Farewell to Flowers, celebrated before the first frost:
Among the most solemn feasts was the one called Farewell to the Flowers, which meant that frost was coming and flowers would wither and dry up. A solemn festivity, filled with rejoicing and merrymaking, was held to bid them farewell. On that same day they commemorated a goddess named Xochiquetzalli, which means “Flowery Plumage.”
On this day they were as happy as could be, the same happiness and delight they feel today on smelling any kind of flower, whether it have an agreeable or a displeasing scent, as long as it is a flower. They become the happiest people in the world smelling them, for these natives in general are most sensuous and pleasure-loving. They find gladness and joy in spending the entire day smelling a little flower or a bouquet made of different kinds of flowers; their gifts are accompanied by them; they relieve the tediousness of journeys with flowers. To sum up, they find the smelling of flowers so comforting that they even stave off and manage to survive hunger by smelling them. Thus they passed their lives among flowers in such blindness and darkness, since they had been deceived and persuaded by the devil, who had observed their love for blossoms and flowers. . .
On this day their persons, temples, houses and streets were adorned with flowers. . . . Thus decorated with flowers, they engaged in different dances, merrymaking, festivities, and farces, all filled with gladness and good cheer. All this was in honor of and reverence for flowers. This day was called Xochilhuitl, which means “Feast of the Flowers,” and no other finery-gold, silver, stones, feathers-was worn on this day-only flowers. Besides being the day of the flowers it was the day of a goddess, who, as I have said, was called Xochiquetzal. This goddess was the patroness of painters, embroiderers, weavers, silversmiths, sculptors, and all those whose profession it was to imitate nature in crafts and in drawing. All held this goddess to be their patroness, and her feast was specially solemnized by them. . . (238)
[This selection was translated by John Curl and found at the web site of the Foundation for the Advancement of Meso-American Studies.]
The Portugese took the flower to India where it soon became a sacred flower in Hindu worship. It is grown in great quantities in India and Thailand and used in garlands for rituals, weddings and festivals. You can see the garlands ornamenting cars, carts and tools during the Dussera festival in India in this article at Julie Ardery’s wonderful site, Human Flower Project, where you can also read a great article by Jill Nokes about her journey on the trail of Zempasuchitl.
Marigold flowers can be dried and added to scrambled eggs or other egg and cheese dishes. In Mexico, the dried flower heads are fed to chickens because they add color to the flesh of the chickens who eat them and to the yolks of the eggs they produce. The flower petals also produce a yellow dye.
The marigold is a great companion plant in the garden. Both the odor of the leaves and chemicals in the root keep away pests. The smell of linalool found in marigolds (and lavender and sweet peas) has been shown to reduce stress.
One of my favorite sources for garden plants, Mountain Valley Growers, sells several unusual varieties of marigold and provides thorough descriptions of them, including the results of a taste test between French marigold and Spanish marigold.
If you want seeds instead, go to this article (also at the fabulous Human Flower Project web site) about marigold missionary, David Moffitt, who gives away thousands of marigold seeds away if you send him a self-addressed stamped envelope.
In the language of the flowers, marigolds have unfortunate meanings. African marigolds mean “vulgar minds” and French marigolds mean “jealousy.”
Greenaway, Kate, Language of Flowers
Kaplan, Lawrence, “Historical and Ethnobotanical Aspects of Domestication in Tagetes,” adapted from a paper presented at the IX International Botanical Congress at Montreal, August 28, 1959