Once used in the major ceremonies to honor those departed, this flower now can be found in front of homes all over the world. Now you too can know the secrets of the cempasúchil, the marigold. What makes a flower that is the symbol of death work its way into one of the world's most famous annuals? Let’s take a look at the history of the marigold and how it was used then and now.
Since pre-hispanic times, this plant has had medicinal purposes and it is thought to cure stomach ache, parasites, diarrhea, liver illnesses, vomiting, and toothache among other illnesses. The flowers are still used in many areas to cure these and other ailments. All of these illnesses are said to be cured by a tea made from the flowers, eating the flowers, or wearing the flowers in a pouch around the neck. In actuality, marigolds are anti-inflammatory and can soothe minor skin abrasions and wounds. Fill a jar with marigold blossoms and pour olive oil over them. Store in a cool, dark place for three weeks, strain and mix with a wax or petroleum jelly to make an ointment. It will keep for several months.
What is Dia de los Muertos?
Every year on November first and second, the Aztecs relive a little of their past with the Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Huge altars are set up with sugar skulls, food and drinks, given to the deceased members of the household. No altar is ever complete without the gathering of the wild marigolds and the spreading of them everywhere from the family altar, to pathways, and even in the graveyards. This can be traced, in part, to the ancient Aztec celebration of Death. In the last 2000 years or so, these celebrations have changed little in the Aztec world. There is some thought that they started in the Totonacian area, now Vera Cruz. What is known for sure is that the celebrations are ancient and highly revered in many areas of Latin America today. The ancient celebrations honored Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of the dead and death. The Aztecs believed that the smell could wake the souls of the dead to bring them back for the festival. The Spanish worked hard to get rid of the festival and for a long time the flowers themselves were not liked or loved.
Dia De los Muertos in today's world
Often in Mexico today the family will visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried and bring them offerings. The main offerings given across the board, rich or poor, are the marigolds, or Flor del Muerto – Flower of the Dead. The flowers are thought to bring out the dead souls to feast on the offerings laid on the table or headstone. We celebrate the occasion on November 1st and 2nd. Instead of a day of mourning, it is a celebration of the lives of those we love who have passed. Friends and families come together and most often the stories told are about the good deeds or funny situations of the departed. It is a loving tribute to relatives, friends and ancestors. People even celebrate the living at this time as well and gifts are given, meals eaten and even fake epitaphs are written honoring someone living. Altars with favorite foods, marigolds, photos and other personal items are dedicated to the loved ones who have passed in hopes that the souls visit and see that they are still cherished long after they died.
The marigold today
The marigold came with Spanish traders to Africa and Europe. Wanting to disconnect it from the flower’s past, the breeding programs held in Africa and Europe gave this great flower the name of “African” and “French” marigold. After the flower was disconnected from its past reputation as the flower of death, it was introduced into the gardens of the world.
Today the annual flowers are prized by gardeners the world over for their long lived blooms that love the heat of summer. They are to be found in gardens across the world, a testament to the wonder of this wonderful flower of the dead. Marigolds are one of the easiest flowers to grow and even a novice has success in growing them from seed. Plant after all danger of frost has passed, or start indoors about 4 weeks before that. Plant outside in a sunny location and pinch back the growing tips to create fuller, bushier plants. Pinch back faded blooms (dead head) to encourage more flowers. Marigolds will bloom from spring through late fall. I still have some blooming right now. They are a plant with an interesting history that has a special place in the world.