The flower now called Mexican marigold was known to the Aztecs as Yauhtli, or "the fog." Some say imbibing its alkaloids fogged the human brain. Aztec priests blew a dried, powdered form of the plant into their sacrificial victims' faces to calm them before a horrific death.
The most intriguing name for this five-petal yellow wildflower is "an offered-up thing," suggesting its use as incense. Any gardener who has grown American marigolds knows of the pungent odor said to drive away pests from neighboring garden plants.
This is a flower so steeped in pre-Columbian religion and practice that it is still widely used today by curanderas, Mexican folk healers. There is science behind this, for the plant oils kill the deadly bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. The Huichole tribe blends it with indigenous tobacco, Nictonina rustica, for sacred smoke. Mayas steep it into a potent tea.
Not only is this small marigold rich in powerful constituents, it was dedicated to Tlaloc, god of rain, one of the Aztecs' most ancient deities. Thus it is not surprising that this plant would become the central flower of El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. This blend of Aztec and Catholic feast days has become one of the most endearing celebrations in the American Southwest and Mexico. Families come together from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 to remember their ancestors and recently deceased loved ones. They create altars, or offrenda, arranging flowers and food for the dead who return to their families for a short time. Such creations are known as the offerenda.
Mexican marigold is the flower of choice because of its scent, considered easily recognized by the spirit world. It is said to lure the dead, who will follow paths of petals from grave to home and back again.
This species is not common except in the marketplaces deep into Mexico, where the flowers are native. There, it is used interchangeably with Tagetes erecta, the progenitor of the African marigold of our gardens. Beyond its southern range, only the ornamental T. erecta is associated with the holiday.
Go into the marketplace of Oaxaca or any other rural town deep within Mexico, and you'll find the flowers. Great bundles are stacked up to sell for home altars. Beside the wildflowers is erecta, with its puffy orange flowers, which makes lucida seem minimal in comparison. But the latter is gathered from the wild, while erecta must be grown in the field.
During the final days of October, people create their offrendas in homes and businesses. They bake special breads known as huesos de los santos or bones of the dead, and make up huge batches of tamales to feed everyone. For the offrenda, they obtain their loved one's favorite things, often cigarettes and tequila, or cook special dishes such as mole. Around all of it, they scatter marigold petals.
It is easy to grow this drought-resistant marigold as a permanent garden plant for medicine, flavoring or ritual. It is a bushy, half-hardy, semi-woody sub-shrub limited to USDA Zones 8 to 11, unlike Tagetes erecta, which is a single-season bedding annual. At maturity, it is 30 inches tall and about half as wide. Flowering begins in late summer, extending well into fall for the Muertos holiday.
Though plants are rare, you can buy seed online from well-established companies such as J.L. Hudson, Seedsman (www.jlhudsonseeds.net). This catalog is not illustrated but specializes in many obscure plants from North and South America, particularly those indigenous to Oaxaca.
Americans have lost their Old World remembrance of the dead, but perhaps this blend of Aztec and European spirituality will awaken it again.