Cempasuchil/ Calendula/ Marigold: Flower of the Dead

By Julie Etra

Tagetes erecta, the Mexican marigold, also called Aztec marigold, is native to Mexico and Central America although it is frequently and mistakenly called African marigold. The common name Cempasúchil (also spelled cempazúchil) is derived from the Nahuatl term for the flower zempoalxochitl, which means “twenty flower”. This is an interesting name as the flower is in the composite family (Asteraceae) along with many common flowers such as daisy, coneflower, yarrow, and dandelion. By definition, it has many separate flowers within the same flower ‘head’, so when you pull a ‘petal’ it is actually a separate flower. The marigold is native to the Mexican states of San Luis Potosi, Chiapas, Mexico, Puebla, Sinaloa, Tlaxcala and Veracruz. It is believed that during the sixteenth century it was brought from America to Europe. Over the centuries a number of varieties have been developed such as Antigua, Atlantis, Cortez, Discovery, Galore, Inca, Jubilee, Ladies, Marvel, Perfection, and Vanilla. It is widely cultivated in many countries particularly China, Peru, and India.

Many of us who garden in temperate climates are familiar with this pretty annual flower that re-seeds itself. I usually plant it in my vegetable garden, as it has a reputation as a natural insect and animal repellent, particularly for white flies and aphids. It also may help protect certain crop plants from destructive nematodes, which are soil organisms, via a chemical exuded by plant roots.

The plant has historical traditional and medicinal uses in Mexico and Central America but was also used as a dye plant by the Cherokee. Traditionally water infused with the fragrant essential oil of the flower was used to wash corpses in Honduras, and the flower is still commonly planted in cemeteries. Medicinally it is thought to cure stomach aches, parasites, diarrhea, liver illnesses, vomiting, and toothaches, among other illnesses.

The flowers, or a concentrated powder derived from the flowers, are fed to chickens in lieu of or as an addition to corn to enhance the yellow color of chicken skins and egg yolks.

In Mexico, cempasúchil is also called flor de muertos (“flower of the dead”) is used extensively in the Día de los Muertos st celebration every November 1 to decorate altars that honor dead ancestors, along with offering of food and beverages. They are spread on pathways, fountains, and graves. This tradition may be traced to the ancient Aztec celebration of Death, has changed little in the last 2,000 years. These ancient celebrations honored Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of the dead and death. The Aztecs believed that the lovely aroma could wake dead and bring them back for the celebration.

The Spanish conquerors, of course, suppressed the festival and for many years the flowers were not commonly seen.

Although I have never gone as far as drying or distilling this lovely flower, I do plant it religiously every year, from multicolored short versions to tall, bright yellow varietals. But so far it has not helped with the bug infestations.

Blossom Ice Cubes

Gently rinse your pesticide-free flower blossoms. Boil water for 2 minutes for all the air trapped in the water to escape. Remove from heat and let the water cool until room temperature. NOTE: This will ensure that the ice cubes are crystal clear. Place each blossom at the base of each individual compartment within an ice tray. Fill each compartment half full with the cooled boiled water and freeze. After the water is frozen solid, fill each ice cube compartment the rest of the way to the top with the remaining boiled water. Freeze until ready to use


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