The marigold’s easy care and cheerful colors have made it one of the most popular annual flowers in America. The National Garden Bureau has declared 2010 to be the Year of Marigolds. Celebrate by planting some sunshine in your garden!
Anyone who has ever grown marigolds is familiar with their pungent aroma--some even believe the plants to be useful for repelling pests in the vegetable garden. Although its scent may not be to everyone’s liking, no one can deny the marigold’s sunny countenance. Marigolds have few insect or pest problems, and given minimal care, they will happily bloom from spring until frost.
Marigolds are native to the Americas, originally found from the southwestern United States south to Mexico and Argentina. The ancient Aztecs called the marigold “cempasuchil," and considered it a sacred plant. To this day the marigold plays an important part in the Mexican Dias de los Muertos, or the Days of the Dead ceremonies. Formed into garlands, wreaths and crosses, marigolds decorate altars and cemeteries, where their scent is believed to guide the spirits of the dead back home.
Sixteenth century Spanish and Portuguese explorers transported these new world flowers to Europe and India. Marigolds, in Hindi called “gendha,” became an important flower in Indian culture and religion. Marigold garlands serve as an adornment for religious statues, or as a decoration or offering at weddings, funerals and other celebrations. Now a widely cultivated crop in southern Asia, marigolds are used to make dye, flavoring, essential oils and medicine.
The name bestowed on the plant by Europeans was not original. People were already using the term marigold to refer to the similar-in-color Calendula officinalis (also called the pot marigold). The name marigold, a shortened form of “Mary’s gold,” came about because the plant was associated with the Virgin Mary.
African Marigold (Tagetes erecta) The largest of the marigold clan is the African marigold (sometimes also called the American marigold), Tagetes erecta. Once the marigold reached Spain, it was cultivated in monastic gardens, then transported to outposts in Africa. The first marigolds planted in the U.S. (Thomas Jefferson cultivated them in his Monticello gardens) came by way of Africa, which is how this type received its moniker. The globe-shaped double flowers of the African hybrids, found in yellow, orange or cream, may be up to 5 inches across. Plants can range from 10 inches all the way to 3 feet high, and will provide blooms from midsummer through frost. The taller hybrids, useful for bedding and as a background for other shorter annuals, may require staking. Popular varieties of this flamboyant flower include the Inca, Perfection and Antigua series.
The French marigold derives its name from French breeders who developed new hybrids of T. patula. Smaller and bushier than the African marigolds, French marigolds have single or double flowers which reach up to 2 inches across. Bloom colors can be found in yellow, gold, orange, rust or mahogany red, with many stripes and bi-colors available. At 6 to 18 inches in height, the French marigolds are versatile. Use them to create a bright edging for the border, or to add cheer to containers. Tough and unfussy, they look equally at home in a flower or a vegetable garden. They have an advantage over the African hybrids in that they reach blooming size more quickly, putting on a show from spring until frost, and they are more resistant to rain. Popular varieties include the Janie, Disco, Queen Sophia and Safari series.
Signet Marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia) Less well known is the signet marigold, T. tenuifolia, which features delicate foliage and small yellow or orange single daisy-like flowers. If you don’t care for the scent of regular marigolds, try the signet marigold, which is edible and has a flavor reminiscent of tarragon. The fine, lacy foliage exudes a lemony fragrance. These small, bushy plants are ideal for adding color to the herb garden. 'Golden Gem' and 'Lemon Gem' are the most well-known varieties.
Marigolds are so popular that you are bound to find a large selection among the bedding plants at garden centers. You can also plant marigold seeds directly in the ground after danger of frost is past, or start them indoors about 6 weeks prior to planting time. Care of marigolds is relatively simple. Make sure to plant them in full sun, in a spot with good drainage. They will appreciate plenty of added organic matter. The smaller French varieties require spacing of only 6 to 9 inches, while you may need to leave as much as 18 inches between the African types. Keep marigolds watered through hot summer weather. Deadheading will keep plants looking neat and encourage repeat blooming.
After spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.