Though called Day of the Dead or Dia de Muertos, this Mexican holiday spans the multiple days of November 1-2. This death holiday is surprisingly jovial and festive with traditions like building altars, sharing stories of ancestors, and offering sacrifices like food, drink, and even sports jerseys, all meant to honor and celebrate the lives of deceased loved ones. The altars are known as altares and the offerings are ofrendas.
With roots that trace back to pre-Columbian cultures, many Dia de Muertos activities center around foods, flowers, and other plants that you can grow in your garden.
Mexican Marigolds, or Targetes erecta, are bright orange flowers that are commonly used for decoration during the holiday. Historically their association with Dia de los Muertos may be due to the fact that these annuals grow well in surprisingly hot and dry conditions, making them abundant in Mexico, parts of South America, and the south of California. This variety is one of the tallest species and can grow upright to a height of 3 to 5 feet.
It’s believed that the bright color and strong scent of the flowers act as a beacon to help guide spirits from the afterlife to their altars and offerings. Dresses, decorations, and tabletops are all adorned with the vibrant marigolds, some even made of paper.
The flower is so strongly associated with the holiday that it is even known as ‘the flower of the dead’ in parts of the world beyond Mexico.
Agave, specifically blue agave, is the base ingredient in tequila, and much like tequila is a popular Mexican drink all other days of the year it’s also a prominent choice among the dead.
Agave tequilana grows best in Zone 9b or Zone 10, which isn’t surprising when you consider sun soaked Mexico is its home. Its desert heritage means that it doesn’t require any special, nutrient-rich soil though it is best to plant in a spot that gets at least 6 hours of sun exposure a day in well-drained soil such as the kind used for succulents. Agave has a tight root system that can tolerate crowding, making it an ideal candidate for container gardening.
If you’re worried that leaving out bottles and bottles of liquor or other foods for the dead seems wasteful, don’t give it another thought. Once the Day of the Dead celebrations conclude and the deceased have had their fill, altars are broken down and whatever offerings are left become fair game for the living. The belief is that the dead consume the essence of the offering, so while everything is still perfectly safe to consume a couple days later, it’s said that the flavors are sometimes lacking as the best parts went to the spirits.
Field corn is a staple of Mexican cuisine and it makes two prominent appearances in Dia de Muertos festivities. The first is in the form of hominy, or dried cornmeal, is an ingredient in pozole, a stew served during many holidays. Additionally, the corn husks are used to make traditional tamales.
While most farmers approach growing Mexican field corn with the intent of having it processed into meal, occasionally whole ears are sold as roasting corn. However, these instances mean that the crop is monitored and harvested at key times when its sugar content is high and the plant still has a good deal of moisture. This contributes to a better, sweeter taste when eaten off the cob.
Corn crops require sites with lengthy sun exposure just like agave, but need a more consistent levels of moisture in their soil. Corn roots like to burrow down deep and when given the space, will go 6 feet down so dig your garden beds deep to loosen as much soil as possible for those roots to punch through. The warm weather plant needs approximately 1 inch of water per week as well as a dose of fertilizer every month or two to maintain healthy nutrient levels.
The flowers of this plant are used to make a tea called Agua de Jamaica that is a favorite in Mexico. This means the sweet drink holds a sweet spot for Mexicans both alive and dead and is a common sight among ofrendas.
Growing hibiscus for teas means choosing the right species with the proper leaves. When starting from seed, plant in late spring or the early summer months. The flowers bloom best in warm, moist conditions so depending on how well you’re able to keep your hibiscus happy, it can reach maturity anywhere from 3 months to 5 months after planting. The leaves near the base of the plant will be ripe and ready for drying first, with leaves closer to the flower’s bud ripening after that.
Dia de los Muertos is packed to the brim with even more delicious foods, unique traditions, and Mexican plants and crops. Painted sugar skulls are perhaps the most iconic image that are known the world over. While modern celebrations include plastic skulls, face makeup, and sculptures, the simple, edible sugar skulls are still made from grown sugar cane.
Whether you’re ready to rush out to garden or make a contribution to a loved one’s collection of ofrendas, remember all of the vitality and life your plants provide as you honor the deceased this Dia de Muertos.