October 31, 2008

Marigolds Bold and Beautiful

  Marigolds Bold and Beautiful 

Hey y’all, my name is Rita Jacinto and I love to garden. I love and respect plants, and deeply appreciate all the gifts they bring to the world. The more I learn about various plants and their habits, uses and lore the deeper my appreciation grows. I write in hopes of touching those chords in others. I hope you enjoy this article and hope that it inspires you to go out and plant a few seeds or take a walk around your neighborhood and appreciate the plants in your part of the world.

It seems that each year I plant fewer and fewer vegetables and more and more flowers and herbs. This is a real change for me. Just a couple years ago I considered flower gardening frivolous. We should be growing our own organic food, becoming more self sufficient, blah, blah, blah. Flowers take up space where vegetables could be planted, can’t eat flowers so what good are they. I was very into things having to be utilitarian, if it can’t be eaten or used as a medicine then it was a waste of valuable space. I can be ridiculous like that at times. Fortunately I don’t usually hold to such extreme positions. Now the humblest of flowers can excite me.

Marigolds are pretty humble and have become one of my favorite flowers. Ordinary, common, boring old Marigolds? Yes, yes, yes, let me tell you about these bold beauties from Brazil. Actually they are native to the Western Hemisphere’s subtropical regions, from Arizona down to South America. Portuguese explorers discovered them in the wilds of Brazil in the early 16th century. Apparently they were so impressed by the plant that they carried seed to India, where it adapted well becoming so beloved by the Hindus that they made it one of their sacred herbs. That’s right, it is actually an herb, although certain “authorities” dispute this definition. Mean while in Africa the plant adapted so well it became known as the African Marigold, Tagetes erecta. Today these are sometimes called Aztec Marigolds. They are the same plant as the African Marigold, T. erecta. Later a dwarf variety showed up in fancy Parisian gardens, voila, the French Marigold, Tagetes patula is born. Today we can choose cultivars from the tall T. erecta, or dwarf cultivars from T. patula. There are several other species available for cultivation. One is Tagetes tenuifolia a signet type called Gem Marigold. It is only about 6 inches tall but it has really pretty finely cut foliage and is loaded with tiny gold or yellow blooms all season long. Also available is a wild perennial from Arizona called Tagetes lemonii, one of the most fragrant of the Tagetes. I’m working my way through all of them but the one that caught my interest first is the big guy, T. erecta.

My interest in Marigolds was kindled several years ago while reading about the ‘Day of the Dead’ in Mexico. I was fascinated to learn that they use the petals of marigolds to decorate the graves of departed loved ones. I had a visual image of these bold and vibrant colors strewn over the graves of the dead and wondered why something so visually beautiful was used to represent something so sad.

In Mexico the wild Marigolds, T. erecta, grow three to four feet high and just as wide. They have flowers that are two to four inches across and are very fragrant. The plant has been used for centuries as a beverage, dye, and flavoring as well as medicinally. The rich yellow or orange color is accentuated by splashes of red. It was a sacred herb of the Aztecs who used the flowers to decorate their shrines and temples. Upon arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century the flower took on a whole new significance. It became a living symbol of the Spanish massacre of the Aztec people. The red blood of the Aztecs splashed over the yellow gold the Spanish stole. Marigolds are sometimes called, flor de muerto, flower of death, and represent pain and grief.

It is from Europe that we get the common name of Marigold with an entirely different meaning. The Europeans were familiar with an orange flowered plant native to its southern regions known as Calendula or Calendula officianalis. The bright gold flower was called Mary’s Gold in honor of the Virgin Mary. Because of the flower’s heavenly association it was thought to be a bringer of good luck and to ward off evil and witchery. Mary’s Gold, shortened to Marigold, referred to the Calendula plant also known as Pot Marigold. Our South American native must have seemed similar enough to their Calendula that both plants were referred to as Marigolds. Most of the European folklore about Marigolds is actually about Calendulas, which is too bad because it is especially rich, but that’s for another article.

All of this was interesting and I was willing to try a few Marigolds in the garden but it wasn’t until I discovered the seed of a wild Mexican variety that I really got excited. Yes, I get excited by plants, I admit it and I’m proud of it too. Anyway, this wild variety is called Cempoalxochitl, (pronounced Zem-pul-so-chee-tul), I found it in the Seeds of Change catalog, Their web site is very cool, full of info and they even have a free e-newsletter. What got me was that this variety of T. erecta grows 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide, or so they said in the catalog.

So I ordered it, started the seeds (very easy to start) and in a couple months I had plants that proved the catalog description true. All of this even though the weather we had last summer was cool and wet. These were really great plants that flowered profusely, had few pests, no disease and a wonderful fresh fragrance. They tell me some people don’t like the smell of Marigolds. I can hardly believe it. The best part is that this variety is open pollinated, which means you can save seed and expect them to produce plants much like their parents. The seed I saved had a high germination rate and it looks like I’ll have enough to plant a hedge of Marigolds this year.

This year the catalog listed several more cultivars of T. erecta that I just had to try. I’ll let you know how they do. So far I’m impressed, they were some of the first flowers I started way back in February. Temperatures in my greenhouse dipped into the high 30’s on most of those nights and these tough plants germinated anyway. In fact they had some of the highest germination rates of all seeds I started. In other words, they are very easy to start and do well in our cool early spring, which means they will do well on the other end of the season when we are trying to keep as much color in the garden as possible for as long as possible.

Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest. If not here are a few more bits of info that just might do the trick. For the utilitarians among us this just might be the info that changes your mind. I mentioned earlier that Marigolds are actually herbs that have been used medicinally for various complaints. It is said to strengthen the heart when taken as a tea. Lutein is a compound that is naturally extracted from T. erecta. It acts as an anti-oxidant that protects the eye from free radical damage. In India the Marigold is known as Gendu the leaves of which are used to heal conjunctivitis, cuts and scratches and bruises. The fresh leaf is ground up, the juice is squeezed and applied a few drops at a time to the affected part. The flowers are also used as an offering to the Lord Vishnu.

Marigolds have a long history of everyday use as beverages and condiments and are famous for the quality and color of the dye they produce. The rich yellow/gold color has been used to enhance the color of cheese, the yolks of eggs and the color of chicken skin. Yep, that’s right that nice yellow color on the chicken skin is because the little guys are eating Marigold petals in their chow. Try it sometime to flavor your rice, it imparts a slightly spicy, pungent flavor or toss a few plucked petals in your salad for a little pizzazz. Any of you who have had problems with soil nematodes may already know that by heavily planting Marigolds in the area you can rid yourself of nematodes forever.

See what I mean, you thought they were just Marigolds. Common, boring even, yet look how much more there is to them. All you have to do is look a little closer and a whole new wonderfully magical world reveals itself. Its just waiting for us to pay attention.                  


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