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French Marigolds Aren't French (and Other Facts About Tagetes Patula)

Updated on August 16, 2017
The Dirt Farmer profile image

Jill volunteers at community gardens & learns about gardening through the MD Master Gardening Program & MD Master Naturalist Program.

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.

French marigolds actually originated in Mexico.
French marigolds actually originated in Mexico. | Source

Interesting Origins

"Me llamo Marigold."

Yes, they're commonly called French marigolds, but 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" (National Gardening Association), 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.

Source

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

We grow a mix of French marigolds for a variety of blooms in various combinations of orange, red and yellow.
We grow a mix of French marigolds for a variety of blooms in various combinations of orange, red and yellow. | Source

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.

Most French marigolds bloom in combinations of red, yellow and orange. Pictured: a red and yellow hybrid.
Most French marigolds bloom in combinations of red, yellow and orange. Pictured: a red and yellow hybrid. | Source

The First White Marigold

Marigolds are loved by gardeners world wide. Pictured: a white marigold growing in India.
Marigolds are loved by gardeners world wide. Pictured: a white marigold growing in India. | Source

French Vanilla, called the first white marigold by Burpee Seed Company, can still be purchased through Burpee online.

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 Marigolds to Try in Your Garden

Odorless
For Nematode Control
Single or Semi-Double Petal
Double Petal
Crown of Gold
Goldie
Cottage Red
Embers
French Vanilla
Nemagold
Durango
Fireball
Sweet 'n Gold
Nema Gone
Nema Gone
Happy Days
Sweet 'n Yellow
Petite Gold
Scarlet Starlet
Queen Sophia
 
Petite Harmony
 
Snowball
 
Tangerine
 
 

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).

Unlike French marigolds, African marigolds don't produce flowers with red on them.
Unlike French marigolds, African marigolds don't produce flowers with red on them. | Source

African Marigolds

Tagetes erecta

African marigolds (T. 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 are edible; however, not all French marigolds are.
Signet marigolds are edible; however, not all French marigolds are. | Source

Signet Marigolds

T. tenuifolia

Signet marigolds, on the other hand, are much smaller than French marigolds.

Have you ever eaten a marigold?

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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.

French marigolds grow about a foot tall, smaller than African marigolds & larger than rock-garden marigolds.
French marigolds grow about a foot tall, smaller than African marigolds & larger than rock-garden marigolds. | Source

And, of course, French Marigolds.

T. patula

French marigolds 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.

French Marigold Flower Seeds - 1,000 Flower Seeds in Each Packet
French Marigold Flower Seeds - 1,000 Flower Seeds in Each Packet

You'll only have to buy seeds once. After that, you can save and sow your own year after year.

 

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

Marigolds in the garden reduce the prevalence of root-knot and root-lesion nematodes (microscopic worms) in the soil.
Marigolds in the garden reduce the prevalence of root-knot and root-lesion nematodes (microscopic worms) in the soil. | Source

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.

Anecdotal evidence has long suggested the benefits of growing marigolds alongside vegetables.
Anecdotal evidence has long suggested the benefits of growing marigolds alongside vegetables. | Source

Marigold vs. Nematode

Like French marigold roots, marigold leaves manufacture natural toxins; in other words, marigolds produce their own pesticide.
Like French marigold roots, marigold leaves manufacture natural toxins; in other words, marigolds produce their own pesticide. | Source

Natural Pesticide

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

Collect dried seed heads & either sow them in summer for a fall showing or save them for next spring.
Collect dried seed heads & either sow them in summer for a fall showing or save them for next spring. | Source

Internationally Loved

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 2017 Marigold Festival in Pekin, Illinois, runs from September 8 to September 10.

Americans, of course, aren't the only people who love marigolds.

Mexico ♥ 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).

Marigold garlands are used as decorations throughout India and the Indian subcontinent.
Marigold garlands are used as decorations throughout India and the Indian subcontinent. | Source

Marigolds & 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").


© 2013 Jill Spencer

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    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 23 months ago from United States

      Hi Diana, marigolds are pungent. I'll have to try them for snake control. Strangely enough, the can of snake away we bought to sprinkle around our beds is full of fragrant spices. After I put it down, the flowerbeds smell like apple pie! lol Thanks for dropping by. --Jill

    • Diana Lee profile image

      Diana L Pierce 23 months ago from Potter County, Pa.

      My grandmother always planted marigolds around her house and pathways. She claimed that snakes hated them and she hated snakes so that worked out well.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 3 years ago from United States

      Hi Peggy W! The old folks knew what they were doing, huh? Thanks for the shares! Have a good one, Jill

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I learned about companion planting and the value of marigolds from watching my grandfather garden. When I had a large garden years ago in Wisconsin, I grew many marigolds along with my veggies and never used pesticides. Excellent article with beautiful photography! Pinning this to my flowers board.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 3 years ago from United States

      Hi Den! Thanks for your kind words.They mean a lot coming from an expert. All the best! Jill

    • gardener den profile image

      Dennis Hoyman 3 years ago from Southwestern, Pennsylvania

      To The Dirt Farmer

      I love your hub on marigolds thanks for all of the great information and keep up the great work. Gardener Den

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Appreciate your comments, Deb! Thanks.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This was so well done! Marigolds are my favorites, with pansies a close second. Nice history lesson, too.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Hi Lee! Sounds like your marigolds are helping you keep root knot at bay. The only pest damage I ever have to marigolds is from snails, although I've read that they're susceptible to mites, too. Thanks for stopping by!

      @ Pearl--Appreciate your comments & thanks for sharing. It's strange how the most common things, once you start researching them, become quite complicated! Take care, Jill

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Jill, this was most informative. I love the white marigold! You have taught me a lot about what I thought was just a common annual. Thanks for sharing all this awesome info ;) Pearl

      Voted Up++++ and pinned

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 4 years ago from Citra Florida

      Hey Jill

      Last year I planted "Guardian" marigolds to combat nematodes. In places where I don't have marigolds I do see some root knot (I had some bizarre lumpy carrots) but where ever marigolds grow other plants are safe. Now my marigolds have self sown and they are all over the place.

      I also see fewer pests around the marigolds, squirrels and rabbits don't seem to like them when there are other choices

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      We have many Marigolds out the back so to learn a little more about them is great. Wonderful hub Jill and voted up.

      Eddy.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Thank you, Maren! I've been debating about learning more about special lenses & perhaps getting one. I don't know. It might be pretty expensive!

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Love your own photos!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Thanks, W1totalk! Good to hear from you.

      Hi Faith! The more I read about marigolds, the more complicated they became! I guess that's just part of research. I could have kept on reading & learning & perhaps written a small book about them! (But who would read it?) Thanks for your comments. All the best, Jill (:

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

      Fascinating, insightful and oh so beautiful hub here. I have never eaten a marigold. What a comprehensive hub here on the marigold. Love all of the stunningly beautiful photos too.

      Voted up ++++ and sharing

      Blessings, Faith Reaper

    • W1totalk profile image

      W1totalk 4 years ago

      Great article. Wonderful marigold types.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Hi Jackie! You don't have to wait if you're in the Am. South. Plant them now & they'll bloom at the end of Oct. and keep going strong through Nov. It takes several good hard frosts to kill a marigold. Nice to hear from you! Take it easy, Jill (:

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I would love to have white marigolds, I didn't know they came on white either. I will have to plant a garden of them next summer, mosquitoes are horrible!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Hi Patricia! Always good to hear from you. I agree: a white marigold doesn't look like a marigold at all! I like the tricolor ones best, I guess because they seem the most old fashioned to me. And I like the way they stink, too! Take care of yourself! --Jill

      Hey purl3agony! I noticed lots of people pinning your hub about knitting a shawl. Congratulations! And thanks for visiting. I'd be interested to hear how your white marigolds do. At least one of the varieties that I know of is actually odorless.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Oh Ms. Dora, I'm so sorry your seeds didn't grow. What could have happened? Birds, maybe. Ours grew nice & thick this year, but not exactly where we planted them. That always seems to happen, probably because the dog helps. We'll both just have to try again next year. I've never eaten a marigold, but ... I guess it's time to try it. Thanks for your comments! Take care, Jill

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      Glorious array of color and texture in the photos...

      the white one looks like a carnation at first glance. My Momma often baked the soil to get rid of nematodes...

      I learned so much, Jill, thank you for sharing. Voted up, pinned, and shared.

      Angels are on the way this afternoon. ps

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Beautiful! And lots of good information. I planted some marigold seeds; they did not grow. Would like to have those good for salads. Thank you for this article. Voted Up and Useful!

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 4 years ago from USA

      Very interesting! I never knew there were white marigolds. I'll have to find these to plant as a border in our garden next year. I've never been a huge fan of marigolds, but they are a hearty plant in my (very limited) experience and they add a great pop of color and texture to planters and gardens. Thanks, as always, for the great information!! Voted up and pinned!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Hi, Heather. Not all French marigolds are edible--I do know that; however, I'm not sure which ones are safe to eat, make into tea, etc. But it's worth looking into! Thanks for stopping by & commenting. --Jill

    • HeatherH104 profile image

      HeatherH104 4 years ago from USA

      Very interesting! I have marigolds in my garden right now. It's been a great year for them, they have really flourished.

      Do you know if all marigolds are edible? Curious if there are health benefits to eating them (I know that wasn't the point of this hub, just got me thinking).

      Voted up.