By Audrey Stallsmith
Zinnias, or else some coarser marigold,
Brazenly rigid in their metal bowls. . .
Derek Walcott, "The Divided Child"
While they bloom all summer, the flaming colors and acrid scent of marigolds always remind me of the fires and foliage of autumn. However, although the Old World’s strappy pot marigolds (Calendula spp.) can continue until the first snows, ferny New World marigolds (Tagetes spp.) generally expire with the first frost.
Among the easiest annuals to grow, they appear by the thousands in local stores and greenhouses every spring. Because they are so omnipresent, they tend to be scorned by serious gardeners.
As far back as 1840, Mrs. Louden wrote in The Lady’s Flower Garden of Ornamental Annuals that “The commonness of this flower prevents it's exciting the admiration that its brilliant colors could not fail to obtain, if the plant they belong to were either new or rare.” Fortunately, amateur gardeners are more than happy to keep the plants popular, and the rest of us still have a sneaking fondness for their pleasant pungency.
Although often called African (Tagetes erecta) or French (Tagetes patula) marigolds, they actually originated in Mexico and Central America. Their long season of bloom makes them ideal for decorating graves on Memorial Day.
That particular use has generations of tradition behind it, as marigolds are the Flor de Muerto (“flower of the dead”) in Mexico, enlivening the Day of the Dead, November 1. Tagetes derives from Tages, an Etruscan god and soothsayer who supposedly sprang up from the earth as quickly as marigolds do. So the blooms stand for grief and sorrow or fortune telling in the Language of Flowers.
Carried to Spain and other parts of the world in the early 1500s by explorers and missionaries, the “African” type may have been transported to England from Tangiers, while the “French” variety supposedly was brought across the Channel by Huguenots fleeing persecution in France. By the late 1700s, both types had bounced back “across the pond” to North America.
The African or “upright” type can reach 4 feet with blooms up to 4 inches across, while the French or “spreading” variety seldom surpasses 1 1/2 feet with smaller flowers—usually in shades of yellow, orange, or rust. Because marigolds have been around so long, they have a comforting, homey presence. Since they exude a substance that can kill nematodes, they often are planted in vegetable as well as flower gardens.
Back in 1954, Burpee’s offered $10,000 to the gardener who could produce the first white marigold. That prize wasn’t claimed until 21 years later when an Iowan farmer’s widow, Alice Vonk, finally succeeded with ‘Snowball.’
We can learn a lesson from the marigold, which doesn’t bemoan the brevity of its existence. Instead it blooms as long and strong as it can to make the most of that short span.
Tagetes erecta image is from the 1896 Favorite Flowers of Garden and Greenhouse by Edward Step, courtesy of plantillustrations.org.