French Marigolds Aren't French (and Other Facts About Tagetes Patula)
Old-fashioned favorites, marigolds are as common to flower gardens as the ubiquitous petunia or geranium. They also have a unique history and all sorts of uses, from the decorative to the salutary.
Origins of the Marigold
"Me llamo Marigold."
Although they're commonly called French marigolds, Tagetes patula is actually native to Mexico and Central America.
In the 16th century, their seeds were first transported to Europe by Portuguese explorers. Eventually, the flowers became popular in France—and just about everywhere else, too, including French territories.
Soon the hardy annual—with its pungent aroma, lacy leaves and cheerful flowers—became a staple in ornamental borders (Cutler), so that by the 19th century, it was considered an "old-fashioned" flower (Taylor).
The first part of French marigold's botanical name, Tagetes, is derived from the Etruscan god Tages, who is said to have sprung in all his glory from freshly plowed soil. Patula, French marigold's species name, means "spreading," which is particularly apt, in more ways than one.
Not only are French marigolds easy plants to sow from seed, but they're also hardy self-seeders. And they're grown just about everywhere on the planet.
Single-petal varieties of French marigolds, including Scarlet Starlet & Cottage, perform well under hot, humid conditions.
(For additional cultivars, see the chart below.)
Famous French-Marigold Firsts
The First Marigold Hybrid
The first marigold interspecific hybrid was produced in 1939 by the Burpee Seed Company. It was called ‘Burpee Red & Gold.'
Since then, countless French marigold hybrids have been developed, including marigolds with double, semi-double and single-flower blooms.
Single-petal French marigolds are the best choice for gardeners in hot and humid regions, according to research conducted through the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station. Some gardeners also claim that single-petal marigolds attract more pollinators, probably because of their relatively flat landing pads that provide easy access to pollen and nectar.
The First White Marigold
The first French marigold with really, really white flowers was created in 1975 by home gardener Alice Vonk, who won $10,000 for her efforts from the Burpee Seed Company. (To generate interest in French marigolds, Burpee had announced the competition in 1954; however, no one until Vonk produced a marigold with pure white—not ecru or ivory—flowers.)
In an interview with People magazine, Vonk described the Mendelian science that she applied for to her marigold project: "I used to look in the seed catalogs for the largest yellow marigolds I could find. I would let the palest flowers go to seed, then collect the seeds" ("A True Drama"). Eventually, after years and years, her patient strategy paid off. In 1974, Burpee gave her $100 for her excellent work; the next year, she won the entire prize.
On its online catalog, Burpee gives the hybrid 'French Vanilla' the designation first white hybrid, but makes no mention of Alice Vonk. Other sources cite 'Snowball' and 'Snowbird' as the name of Vonk's winner. So . . . what's really the name of first white marigold? Your guess is as good as mine!
French Vanilla, called the first white marigold by Burpee Seed Company, can still be purchased through Burpee online.
French Marigolds to Try in Your Garden
For Nematode Control
Single or Semi-Double Petal
Crown of Gold
Sweet 'n Gold
Sweet 'n Yellow
Three Popular Marigolds
Who's the Fairest of the Three?
French marigolds are one of the three most popular species of Tagetes grown today. The other two are African marigolds (T. erecta) and signet marigolds (T. tenuifolia).
African marigolds (Tagetes erecta) are also called American marigolds. They are the largest of the three and have an upright habit and large yellow, orange or white round flowers up to five inches across.
Significantly taller than French marigolds, African marigolds can reach heights of up to three feet.
Signet marigolds (T. tenuifolia), on the other hand, are much smaller than French marigolds.
Have you ever eaten a marigold?
In fact, because of their dainty, low-growing habit and penchant for dry, hot areas, they are sometimes called rock-garden marigolds.
Signet marigolds have edible flowers that make a pretty garnish or colorful addition to a salad.
And, of course, French Marigolds.
French marigolds (T. patula) are right in the middle of the two as far as size is concerned, or (as some gardeners would say) they're "just right"—not too big, not too small.
Bushy and compact, French marigolds usually grow no higher than a foot. I love to see them sown in rows around a garden, or along a fence or wall. They make a wonderful hedge that blooms from summer into late fall or, if the weather's mild, into early winter.
French marigold cultivars come in double-flower and single-flower varieties, but most are doubles with red, orange and yellow flowers that seem petite compared to African marigolds. Most measure from one to three inches across.
The Marigold Effect
French Marigold, MD?
Gardeners have long maintained that French marigolds are good for a garden's health, claiming that they repel cabbage moths, Mexican bean beetles and other garden pests.
For these reasons (and others) marigolds have traditionally been touted as excellent companion plants for broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and pole beans and bush beans (Israel)—although I've read anecdotal accounts of marigolds actually inhibiting bean production, too.
So does the pungent scent of marigolds really drive away white fly and deter rabbits? The jury's still out on that. But there is scientific evidence that marigolds really do deter at least two diseases that often devastate crops.
Marigold vs. Nematode
Scientific studies have shown that marigolds are effective in reducing the number of disease-causing nematodes (microscopic worms) in the soil, not by their strong smell but by the natural pesticides that they produce in their roots and leaves.
To get the most out of marigold's beneficial effect on the soil, clip spent plants off at their base at the end of the growing season, leaving the roots intact.
Marigolds are allelopathic. Allelopathic plants generate compounds that are toxic to other plants and other organisms. In the case of marigolds (T. erecta and T. minuta included), they produce terthiophene and other compounds that reduce the number of nematodes that cause root lesion and root knot disease.
Root knot and lesion diseases adversely affect many crops, including grains, peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, stone fruits like peaches and plums, and cut flowers (Davis and others; Rahman). In the case of root knot disease, nematodes infest plant roots, laying eggs and disrupting the vascular system.
Research at the University of Georgia shows that some French marigold cultivars produce higher levels of toxin and are therefore more effective in reducing the number of pest nematodes in soil. 'Tangerine', 'Petite Gold', 'Petite Harmony', 'Goldie', and 'Nemagold' are said to be particularly effective when planted closely spaced in a solid block.
At the end of the growing season, clip off the plants at their base, leaving the roots in the soil. This will strengthen marigold's anti-nematode effect.
You could also treat marigolds like green manure, growing them in dense patches and then tilling them under before they bloom to enrich the soil and control disease-causing nematodes.
Saving & Sowing French Marigold Seeds
Marigolds in the USA
Did you know that the marigold was once a contender for the national flower of the United States?
The rose ultimately won the title in 1986; however, the long campaign of Senate majority leader Everett McKinley Dirksen (at the behest of David Burpee) brought the marigold much attention and acclaim.
In a famous 1967 speech, Dirksen called the marigold "a native of America" and an "American flower" with a " robustness [that] reflects the hardihood and character of the generations who pioneered and built this land into a great nation'' ("A National Flower").
Dirksen's hometown of Pekin, Illinois, calls itself the Marigold Capital of the World.
Pekin began growing marigolds to show support for Dirksen's national flower campaign. In 1973, the town began its annual Marigold Festival in honor of Dirksen.
The festival continues to this day.
The 2019 Marigold Festival in Pekin, Illinois, runs from September 5 to September 8.
Americans, of course, aren't the only people who love marigolds.
Mexico Loves Marigolds
In Mexico and Guatemala, fresh and dried marigold flowers are used to decorate graves and cemeteries as part of Day of the Dead celebrations, and marigolds are called Flor de Muerto, the flower of the dead (Taylor).
Marigolds and South Asia
Marigolds are also widely grown and used throughout the Indian subcontinent.
According to Plant Cultures, a site sponsored in part by Kew Gardens, marigolds are used as decorations in many ceremonies, including weddings and funerals, in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Marigolds are also popularly used in South Asia to distinguish special and/or sacred places and buildings ("Marigold History").
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Jill Spencer