Editor’s note: Due to rain, the location of El Panteón de Sacramento has changed.
Their scent could raise the dead, or at least point the spirits in the right direction.
Their vivid color also commands attention and signifies celebration in cultures around the globe.
Marigolds may seem like a ubiquitous bedding plant in American gardens, but this simple flower means so much more.
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During this weekend’s Día de los Muertos block party in midtown Sacramento, marigolds should be plentiful, decorating Day of the Dead altars and scenting the air.
“I love it!” said Mama Angelbertha Cobb, Sacramento’s matriarch of Aztec culture and tradition. “Because that smell is very unique. That smell reminds me of my roots.”
In Mexico, marigolds are called cempazuchitl. Translated from its Aztec roots as “20 petal” or “20 flower,” that name refers to the complex flower’s clustered florets.
“When you look at the flower up close, you see each little petal is actually a flower,” said Cobb, who came to California from her native Mexico 56 years ago. “In Mexico, cempazuchitl comes alive – it blooms – in October and November, the same time as our celebration. When you pick them, they stay fresh. They don’t look dead.”
But to generations on both sides of the border, marigolds represent flores de muertos, “flowers of the dead.”
“Death is a sure thing for everyone,” Cobb said. “If you are born, you have to die. Flowers also die. My ancestors saw that transition, from life to death. … They celebrated Día de los Muertos long before the Spaniards came.”
Traditionally, Day of the Dead straddles two days: Nov. 1 and 2.
“It’s become almost a national celebration in the U.S., particularly in the Southwest,” said Marie Acosta, executive director of Sacramento’s Latino Center of Art and Culture, which is hosting the Sacramento event. “We look forward to Day of the Dead every year.”
According to tradition, bright yellow and orange marigolds help the departed find their way back home. The spirits are welcomed by the marigolds’ strong scent as the flowers adorn graves and stylized altars. Whole wreaths are made of fresh marigolds and hung on doors. Marigolds also are strung together and worn like leis. Scattered petals create paths for the spirits to follow, too.
“The scent is so pungent, no way the spirits can miss it,” Acosta said.
Bedazzled with fresh marigolds, 40 altars will be constructed early Saturday morning in a covered parking garage on L Street during this weekend’s El Panteón de Sacramento, an event started by the Latino Center in 2010. (The event is usually held on J Street, but moved due to rain.)
“Panteón means cemetery,” Acosta explained. “In Mexico, the tradition is to spend the evening with your departed loved ones at their gravesite. Instead, we created our own panteón. That’s the whole point of why we created this Day of the Dead (event). We want people to feel and experience a real celebration of Día de los Muertos.”
Mexico is not alone in its reference of marigolds.
In Nepal, marigolds hold a special place year-round. They’re used in many ceremonies such as the five-day festival of Tihar, which continues through Monday, Oct. 31, this year. Homes are decorated with garlands of sayapatri (“100 layers,” again referring to marigold’s many petaled florets).
Marigolds hold significance in Europe, too. Called chornobryvetsi, marigolds are the national flower of Ukraine.
How did this one sometimes-stinky flower travel so far?
Native to the Americas, marigolds were spread around the world by Portuguese sailors, who discovered them in Brazil more than four centuries ago. Marigold petals contain natural pest repellant that wards off mosquitoes and other insects. That made this flower very popular and soon marigolds were growing wild in Africa and India.
The flower’s common English name comes from “Mary’s Gold,” the nickname for Europe’s native calendula that looks similar in color.
The large orange marigolds favored for Día de los Muertos are African marigolds (Tagetes erecta). That’s a misnomer since these flowers are descended from marigolds native to the Americas, not Africa. But they crossed the Atlantic in the 1500s, became naturalized in Africa, and returned to Mexico with new and bigger forms.
Likewise, French marigolds (Tagetes patula) are not really European, but dwarf descendants of wild marigolds native to Mexico and Guatemala.
Marigold season in Sacramento is just wrapping up. This easy-care annual grows well during summer heat and continues to flower until frost.
“Marigolds are still very popular,” said Greg Gayton of Green Acres Nursery & Supply. “People like them because they offer color, help attract beneficial insects, are easy to grow and last for a long period. I have seen their popularity grow during the last couple of years, especially when mixed with other annuals and perennials, grouped in potted plantings and vegetable gardens.”
Green Acres gets its marigolds from Northern California plant vendors Cal Color and Kawahara, Gayton said. “Antigua, Bonanza and Durango series were some of the most popular and requested varieties this past summer.
“You might still find a couple of flats available on the tables at the nursery in October,” he added.
Demand for marigolds spikes at October’s end as Day of the Dead nears. The festive orange color also is appropriate to another autumn holiday, Halloween.
“There used to be a man with acres and acres of marigolds (outside Sacramento),” Cobb recalled. “That’s where we bought them for our celebrations. But they don’t grow them anymore. And to plant them yourself, it takes water – and we’ve been trying to save water (in the drought). (Fresh marigolds are) a tradition that’s going to be gone soon.”
As her sources for fresh marigolds disappeared, Cobb resorted to making them from orange paper.
“But that’s become harder to find, too,” she said. “I used to use crepe paper, then tissue paper, but I can’t get that either. Now, I’ve got plastic flowers made in Taiwan.”
For Sacramento’s El Panteón, Acosta special-orders fresh marigolds far in advance. This year, she’s been able to get them from a wholesale florist in Lodi.
“They’re hard to get,” she said. “We order hundreds of dollars of marigolds, so all our altar makers know we’ll have fresh flowers. It’s definitely an effort, but wonderful. They add so much to our celebration.”
El Panteón de Sacramento
Celebration of Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead
Where: 2020 L St., Sacramento (rain location)
When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29-30
Details: 916-446-5133, www.lrgp.org