The Marigolds are invaluable garden flowers for summer and autumn colour. The plants are hardy, reliable, prolific and very long flowering.
Marigold is botanically known as Tagetes (tay-gee'teez) while most prefer the more common pronunciation (tag'-a-tees).
The name apparently originates from Tages, an ancient Etruscan God. Some legends say that "marigold" i.e. Mary’s Gold, was named in honour of the sacred "Golden Virgin Mary". From its Latin derivative, Marigold means "sea of gold". A well grown planting of marigolds certainly would live up to that description proudly.
Marigolds will flower almost year-round in the right (sub) tropical and some semi-arid environments but in most temperate gardens they start to shine their brightest as the golden days of summer start to wane into autumns' first light. In drier climates their bright blooms are often seen smoldering under grey late autumn skies until cut down by heavy frost.
The flowers actually have tiny luminary cells within the flower that reflect light, especially yellow and golden shades.
This is probably a natural adaptation of the plant to promote pollination. Many varieties of marigold, especially those in the wild, often have quite small flowers that bloom rather late in the season. Luminary cells help the flowers to stand out, shining in the autumn light, thus they can be seen more easily and are thus more effectively pollinated by insects. When the summer has been warm and moist and the autumn is a little on the dry side the display can be as bright a light show as any autumn sunset.
Marigolds can be planted throughout the warm months. The seed is so rapid and reliable to sprout that it is a favorite for children of all ages just learning about nature and the joys of gardening. For best results choose a sunny site, preferably full sun, with good air circulation and average to rich soil. This soil should be a little peaty or otherwise be able to hold a little moisture while also draining freely.
Too much soil enrichment can sometimes result in more leafy growth over abundance of bloom. Too heavy a soil when combined with prolonged spells of cold wet weather can sometimes result in rot. Good air circulation is essential to control this, especially for those late-season plantings that could be subject to damp days later in the season. Marigolds usually grow well near the coast if the site is not too extreme. One caution: vigilantly guard emerging seedlings and young plants against attack from slugs and snails!
In frost free sites French Marigold can even be sown or planted in autumn for a flower display over the winter and well into the following spring. While some species and varieties take up to 14 weeks to flower, many like the popular dwarf Petite Series, if sown during summery heat and kept warm, moist and sunny, will rocket away like weeds. Under such ideal conditions they will often start flowering in as little as six weeks from seed!
When planted as advanced seedlings they will come into flower almost immediately. Their main flowering display will cover the entire summer and autumn right up to frost. The gold, orange, yellow and bronze blooms literally smolder under the grey skies of late autumn. The flower shades look exceptionally effective when planted as a compliment or highlight to autumn leaf tones.
Marigolds of most sorts make a brilliant show in containers and can be grown in the glasshouse or sunny windowsill indoors. They make excellent edging, hedging, bedding and border plants. Once established, Marigolds require little if any care above the basic requirements for general plant health. But by going to the trouble of dead-heading faded flowers even larger flowers and more prolific bloom over a prolonged period can be the reward.
Many of the marigolds grown today are hybrids of the wild species. The 30 species and numerous wild varieties are all members of the massive Compositae (daisy) Family. These herbs are still commonly found growing wild in parts of Northern Mexico all the way down the Americas into Argentina. Most are annuals but some become tender perennial shrubs that make quick and effective cover and shelter so are often grown as hedging or temporary wind-breaks in warmer climates.
Tagetes erecta, commonly known in today’s garden world as the hybrid giant African or Aztec Marigold, grows to 1m. and is crowned with fluffy, double blooms up to 13cm across. It can also sometimes revert to a large version of its original wild single form. Most often the flowers are spectacular global heads in yellow, gold and orange shades but new hybrids include cream to nearly pure white. The recently introduced modern hybrids known as Aztec Gold, Inca series and Nugget produce giant blooms on much shorter, stocky plants.
By contrast, the original wild Inca marigold (Tagetes minuta) has only tiny flowers but grows into stock shrubs up to 3 meters (10ft) tall and nearly as wide across.
The French Marigold, Tagetes patula, are loosely shrubby, strongly branching plants often smothered in a glow of smaller flowers. This Mexican native can often naturalize in the cottage garden as it does in the wild. In part shade most modern hybrid French Marigolds can be expected to grow roughly 40cm tall. But among the many hybrids are some wiry 1m (3 ft) giants that can be used for valuable winter and early spring colour in a wide range of garden sites that remain sheltered from extreme and extensive freezing.
On the other extreme, the Petite series of French Marigold hardly reach 15-20cm (6-8 inches) with pretty carnation-like flowers on bushy spreading plants. Hardy and reliable French Marigold makes an excellent annual or biennial border and bedding plant coming in a highly pleasing variety of single, double and ruffled forms in mahogany, brown, red, orange, yellow, gold and picotee shades.
Signet marigolds, T. signata and T. tenuifolia unlike most other species have fine, lacy foliage often in a lighter shade of green with a classic pungent yet sweetly aromatic perfume to the leaves. Tiny, 2.5 cm single flowers in many shades of yellow into orange cover the bushy shrubs that usually attain 1-1.5 meters (3-5 ft). These varieties along with the hardier French Marigolds have been used for centuries as a natural insecticide and weed killer. Interplanted through the garden they will control nematode (eelworm), whitefly, aphids and ants. The pungent smell of marigold is a great deterrent to many garden insects.
Even the fumes released from the Marigold’s roots not only deter some insect pests but also inhibit the growth of many competing weeds. Potato and bulb growers often thickly sow marigold over resting fields and then once they mature cultivate them back into the land as a green manure crop to eradicate nematode (eelworm) and carrot rust fly maggots from the soil.
Planted near tomato plants they can eliminate whitefly. To make a potent organic plant spray all parts of the plant can be crushed, and then poured over with nearly boiling water where the marigold parts are allowed to steep and soak for up to a day. Then pour the marigold water through a strainer and it is ready to use as a general garden spray to repel many types of insects. Some gardeners add to the marigold water a little liquid soap as a "sticking" agent. Spray over affected foliage plus all plants to be protected and use immediately rather than store away for later as the essential oils contained in marigold water spray soon evaporate if kept in storage for very long.
The larger hybrid Marigold varieties are wonderful cut flowers. Whole Marigold blooms are one of the classic sacred blossoms used for religious rites, weddings and as adornment in India and amongst Hindu cultures. Whole blooms make excellent floral leis or wreaths and the separated petals make a colourful confetti and also a bright and valuable addition to potpourri. The dried, crushed flowers make a nice yellow dye when mixed with alum mordant for wool and silk. Truly Sea of Gold is an appropriate name for this very beautiful and useful garden treasure, the glorious Marigold.
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