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Not Your Grandma's Marigolds



What do you think of when you hear the word marigold? Maybe you imagine those 6-inch-high borders of orange and yellow flowers that your grandmother planted around her rose beds. Did she buy them by the flat, already blooming? Maybe she knew they helped repel insects from the roses. Or maybe she just liked the fact that they were so easy to grow, drought tolerant and cold-hardy, blooming late into the fall, hanging tough through heavy rains to cheer up even the soggiest gardener.

When I think of marigolds, I think of the big orange pompoms that are such a huge part of Dia de Los Muertos celebrations in Latin America. And I think of my mentor, who introduced me to this genus with a story about how, back in the early '70s, he plucked a seeded flowerhead from a vase in a restaurant in Oaxaca and started growing Tagetes erecta every year and spreading the seed all over the world.

It's probably not news to you that marigolds are a good companion plant, or that they repel nematodes and other pests from your garden. Most gardeners are sold on marigolds from the first go-around, simply because they are beautiful and easy to grow. But did you know there are more than 50 species of Tagetes, and that they are all edible, medicinal, or both? If you aren't already in love with this amazing plant, allow me to convert you. Marigolds are one of my favorite things to grow, and even when I'm out traveling with only a backpack and a pair of boots, I always carry a baggy of marigold seeds to plant and share.

During my years on a farm in Oregon, I experimented with as many different Tagetes species as I could find. The following list covers the ones with which I had the most success in the garden. Whether you're just curious or completely obsessed, grow them all! They are wonderful.

Marigold species for temperate gardens

Tagetes erecta, "African marigold," "Aztec marigold," "Mexican marigold," "Tibetan marigold," "flor de muerto." It's no surprise that, with 3-foot-high stems covered in baseball-sized orange blossoms, plus an extra effectiveness at repelling nematodes that damage crops, this is the marigold that has found it's way into gardens, cultures and rituals all over the world. Native to Mexico, this species is also commonly referred to as "Oaxacan marigold," but don't get it confused with Tagetes oaxacana, which grows wild in Oaxaca and looks completely different. Annual.

Tagetes patula, "pinwheel marigold." Shrubby plants reach about 2 feet high and equally as wide, covered with single and double flowers in orange, red, yellow and a million variegations between. Choose your favorites and save the seeds — develop your own lines and varieties. Annual.

Tagetes minuta, "wakatay," "black mint." Tall, sticky plants with tiny white flowers in clusters. Used as a culinary herb in cultures around the world. Grind the fresh plant into a thick paste and spread on roasted vegetables. Or make it into a pesto, with garlic and oil. This species can sometimes cause skin irritation while processing, take caution. Annual.

Tagetes lucida, "Mexican tarragon," "Spanish tarragon," "pericon," "yerbaniz." Small, plants yield clusters of bright, bite-sized yellow flowers that almost taste like licorice. Use them fresh in salads. Dry the whole plant and use as a culinary herb. Unlike many Tagetes species, this one is perennial. It makes a wonderful addition to a patio container garden.

Tagetes tenuifola, "signet marigold," "golden marigold," These are your grandma's marigold, but did you know the flowers are edible? Smaller plants with lots of flowers, usually yellow but sometimes found in orange and deeper reds, this is the classic marigold that makes a nice low border and seems to never stop blooming. This species is more strong-scented than some of the others, and is known to repel mosquitoes, fleas and ticks.

Calendula officinalis, "pot marigold." I wanted to include this here so that we could clear up any confusion on the matter. Calendula is not a marigold, and none of the Tagetes species are calendula. Calendula, while in the same family as marigolds, comes from a different genus and has completely different seeds and flowers. We'll do the gardening world a favor if we stop calling it "pot marigold" and just call it "calendula." Also a wonderful companion plant, calendula attracts amphibians and beneficial insects, blooms for months on end and self-sows readily. The whole plant is used medicinally, for all sorts of ailments. Grow it, but know it is not a marigold!

A word to the wise: always beware of common names! Many of the names listed above are used to refer to more than one species. But each species is distinct in appearance, flavor, growth patterns and uses. Grow them yourself and you'll never get them mixed up again. Most of what I have written here is based on my own experience. I did, however, get some of the common names listed above from Wikipedia, which, when researching this article, I was delighted to discover has detailed, accurate entries on most of the species in the Tagetes genus. I highly recommend reading those articles to learn more about the special history and characteristics of each species.

How to Grow Marigolds

Marigolds do fine when direct-sown, but for optimal success, sow indoors in early spring. They might be slow to start but be patient, they are worth the wait! Transplant 4-inch seedlings outdoors after the last frost. They are an excellent companion for tomatoes and other nightshades, but don't stop there. Plant them all over the garden and revel in the sea of color when it comes!

Some people use marigolds as a camouflage plant for cannabis. Give the marigolds plenty of room and step back! Once they get growing they will continue to grow and bloom for months, and some of these species can get well over 3 feet high. Pluck off finished flowers and put them in a bouquet, string them into long garlands, or dry them for the seed. The dead-heading will make the plants bloom much later into the season and you'll get a bounty of seeds to share and grow again. But make sure to label your seeds with the correct species.

Seeds for most of the species described here are available through Baker Creek, Territorial and High Mowing Seeds. For rarer seeds, or if you want to try your hand at any of the other 55-plus species of marigold, join Seed Savers Exchange, where you will find a global community of Tagetes geeks.

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