The Journey of the Mexican Marigold
by Dylan Clements
There are many different varieties of Marigold throughout the world, the one that is synonymous with Mexican and Aztec culture is the cempasúchil (Tagetes erecta) variety. This breed is around 4 feet tall and demonstrates large flower heads that range from yellow, orange, and red in color. Despite its Mexican origin, weirdly in English, it is known as the African Marigold.
Native to Mexico it will grow widely in many of its regions such as Chiapas, Puebla, Jalisco, Oaxaca. In the state of Michoacán which is the traditional home of Day of the Dead celebrations, it is semi-commercially grown in fields, one-hour north from the state capital of Morelia. These farms can range from someone’s own backyard to a much larger field of several acres.
Seeds are sown in August and harvested in the last week of October, just in time for the Day of the Dead celebrations. This event lasts from the 31st of October until the 2nd of November. Harvesters, which are men and boys from the local village work in labor gangs with u-shaped knives harvesting the field by hand. Marigolds are then loaded on to small trucks and are driven far and wide throughout the state to be sold.
While locals can go and buy the marigolds directly from the field where the price can be as low as 50 pesos ($2.30 USD) a bunch – a bunch being as many stems that fit in the farmer's arms. At the markets of Patzcuaro for example, vendors line up along the busy roads, all next to each other, and sadly, sell them for very little markup – the reason for this is there is so much competition amongst them.
The reason these particular flowers are so popular for Day of the Dead is that they have an extremely important cultural meaning. Mexican people believe that the spirits of the dead visit the living during the celebration. Marigolds guide the spirits to their altars using their vibrant colors and pungent scent.
Churches and entranceways, town squares, alters and homes are heavily decorated with flowers which make for an eye-catching and for the tourist, a photo worth display. Some people go as far as decorating the entire floor of their church in flower heads while more crafty folk can make long streamers like strings with the heads attached. Upon doing field research on this article I did get the feeling that the local ladies had some sort of unofficial competition on with who could be more creative with a marigold flower.
The more iconic use is on actual gravesites. Hours are spent by families lovingly decorate their loved ones grave in the end result has the cemeteries looking like a sea of orange.
The final event is the whole night of the 1st being spent at their loved ones’ graves, where they sing, dance, eat and drink until morning waiting for them to come and feel their spirits again.