When I was a small child, I grew marigolds of the calendula officinalis variety.
I didn’t know which species I was growing. I just planted the seeds my mother gave me in my own bit of garden and was delighted when most turned into healthy plants with showy, golden flowers.
I have to confess that once I came to Bermuda and started gardening again, I didn’t have much time for marigolds. I thought them stiff, brash and boring. But once when Mike and I were at the plant nursery, he was seduced by the prospect of a yellow, orange and bronze array. Several six-packs of seedlings later, he got what he imagined and I was won over. For one thing, they are easy to grow, and for another, they repel aphids and prevent other pests from attacking nearby plants. Their roots exude thiophenes, which kill nematodes (round worms), and although my friend Alison says we don’t have nematodes, it’s still nice to know marigolds have the force to get rid of them, just in case.
The ones we planted were the tagetes species, a botanical name that Linnaeus gave them in honour of an ancient Etruscan god. Apparently, a farmer ploughing a field somewhere in Tarquini, Italy, was astonished to see the god, Tages, spring out of one of the furrows. The ploughman let out such a cry, crowds of Etruscans gathered to see what the matter was. Tages then proceeded to teach them haruspicy, the gentle art of foretelling the future by examining the entrails of sacrificed animals. Apparently, livers and gallbladders of sheep were the best. Quite why Linnaeus was interested in this is unclear. Maybe the rich colours of the flowers made him think of Etruscan art worked in gold and bronze.
Spaniards probably took Tagetes marigolds from South America and brought them into France. So some have the name French marigolds. But there are also marigolds known as African, thanks to Emperor Charles V, who supposedly brought them back from a crusade and called them flos Africanus.
Jill Collett mentions Calendula marigolds in Bermuda Her Plants and Gardens 1609-1850. She says they were planted on graves during the early eighteenth century. Calendulas are also known as pot marigolds, because the flowers were often thrown into cooking pots to add flavour and colour. A cheap alternative to saffron, they were used to colour butter and cheese.
William Turner, the dean of Wells Cathedral during the sixteenth century, mentions another use for them in his herbal with a note of disapproval: “Some use to make their heyre yelow wyth the floure of this herbe, not beying content with the natural colour which God had given them.” It’s not surprising he was a Nonconformist who disapproved of vestments for Anglican clergy. During his lifetime, he was famous for making an adulterer do public penance wearing a bishop’s square cap and for teaching his dog to steal such caps from bishops’ heads. Given his dislike of ornament, perhaps the richness of the marigold’s colour upset his sensibilities.
However, his passion for scholarship must have told him that calendula, a flower native to Europe, comes from the Latin calendae, which means “the first day of the month.” This was significant for churches: because marigolds grew every month of the ecclesiastical year, they were a reliable source of flowers for the church. The common name “marigold” comes from “Mary’s gold,” since they were considered to be the Virgin Mary’s flowers and often decorated her chapels. They were always a feature of monastic gardens and were also used as herbal remedies for, among other things, abdominal cramps, constipation and scrofula in children. Lotion made from the flowers was supposedly good for sprains and wounds.
There is yet another name for marigolds: the Saxons gave it the wonderful name of “ymbglidegold,” meaning “it turns with the sun.” Certainly, it’s true the flowers open and shut as the sun rises and sinks. Thomas Hyll (or Hill) noted this in his book The Gardener’s Labyrinth, the first gardening book published in England: “…at the noon time of the day fully spread abroad, as if they with spread arms longed to embrace their bridegroom.”
And this is why, of course, they are so good in Bermuda’s hot summers. While other flowers wilt, our marigolds are shining through.