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Magical Marigolds — A bloom with history

“It beguiles the senses and ennobles the spirit of man,” Senator Everett Dirksen said of the marigold in 1967 as he exhorted Congress to declare this humble bloom the American national flower. Since first discovering the popular children’s song about the industrious inchworm too busy measuring to see the splendor of these flowers, I too, have had my own fascination with marigolds.

We often take these ubiquitous orange flowers for granted. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then certainly a lack of appreciation. Even the most ardent admirers of marigolds will concede that the tangerine-colored blossoms lack the appealing fragrances of their showier garden companions. No sweet scent of spring hyacinth. No heavenly aromas like the sweet pea, gardenia, or rose. Instead, this bright bloom has a pungent and rather unpleasant odor. Let’s not sugarcoat it—marigolds stink.

But that’s only one variety, according to Fairfield’s resident expert on all things marigold, Whitney Vose of the Fairfield Garden Club. Since 1935 they’ve been maintaining the Ogden House gardens, planting bulbs and trees on town property, most recently 100 American Chestnut trees, and inspiring locals with community programs, too. Vose is Ogden House Garden Chairperson, along with Nan Nelson.

Vose tell us there are actually three marigold varieties: the not-so-sweet smelling African Tagetes erecta (not from Africa); the French Tagetes patula, and Signet Tagetes tenuifolia. It’s important to keep them straight, she insists. She adores the tenuifolia as it is native to North America, and what our local pollinators are hungry for. The good news? “A lovely, wonderfully citrus aroma.”

For a simple cottage garden or the grandest mansion grounds, Vose agrees, marigolds offer a lot to love. Incidentally, Jefferson adorned Monticello with them. For me, the marigold is the easiest going and growing flower I’ve ever met. There may be gardeners obsessed with finding the most rare and exotic, fussy plants, challenging to grow and keep, and work, work, work. I’m a lazy gardener, though. I want vibrant colors without the heartache and drama.

After a few minutes digging you drop in seeds, water as needed, and wait 45 days or so. Your reward is a swath of brilliant color withstanding insect bullying, resistant to summer heat or chill of evening, and lasting late into Fall. If you like, use plants. But wait until after the last frost. If you plant them the butterflies will come, and Vose confirms they emit a substance to repel bugs and pests from the vegetable patch. Deer, too. Marigolds attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs, hover flies, and parasite mini-wasps. To fall in love with the marigold is to begin a carefree romance, and low maintenance relationship. Minimal weeding. A little deadheading now and again. With six hours sunlight, the self-reliant marigold will take care of itself, and never disappoints.

Not into orange? Lucky for you, marigolds are available in an impressive bouquet of colors: exquisite cream, a spectrum of yellows, vivid purple, and a deep variegated scarlet as red as any prizewinning rose. Size variations are available too, from petite marigolds standing just a few inches to one that grows up to five feet tall.

As members of the Asteraceae family, marigolds are kin to daisies, asters, and sunflowers. Native to the Southwest and Mexico, the marigold was sacred to the Aztecs as the “herb of the sun” or “sun bloom.” In the 1500s, the Spanish brought the flower from the New World, and it travelled to Europe, India, China, and beyond. Marigolds came by their name—Mary’s gold—from English country gardens. According to legend, the poor might bring marigolds as gifts to the Holy Mother of the Christian faith instead of golden coins. The marigold also finds favor in the faiths of India and China as well as with New Age seekers. Some promote its power to bring happiness, peace, and good fortune—even induce psychic visions—just by looking at it. On the Mexican Day of the Dead, the flowers’ bright color and intense smell are said to guide the dead to the living.

“If it’s not fun and interesting, we don’t do it,” says Vose. And she finds the marigold fun and interesting. Vose agrees: the marigold with all its charms and attributes remains and will always be “the people’s flower.”

Colonial Ogden House and gardens are part of Fairfield Museum. The house is scheduled to be open every Sunday afternoon, June through September, and the gardens every day.

Note: Marigolds, also known as calendula, reportedly have medicinal purposes, particularly for vision and skin. They also make a lovely garnish, healthy salad, or a delightful tea.

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