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Credit: Carol Sharp

The early Christians dedicated the marigold to the Virgin Mary. On her bodice the golden flower shone to remind churchgoers of Mary’s golden halo. On March 25, the celebration of Mary’s Annunciation, churches were lavishly decorated with the holy marigolds that always bloomed early in her honour.

Pot marigolds played a major role in medicinal gardens. They were thought to counter headaches, depression, jaundice, heart problems and all kinds of other painful conditions. Grateful doctors and patients considered the plant an unsurpassed cure-all. Marigold flowers provided cooks with a staple for food colouring and flavouring. In butter, puddings and potages, the flowers were used as an affordable substitute for expensive saffron, while the young leaves were enjoyed in spicy salads.

In the realm of magic, marigolds were endowed with many wondrous powers. Those who wanted to converse with fairies, for example, would grow or carry marigolds. To see marigolds in a dream was believed to foretell the dreamer of a forthcoming windfall of gold. People also draped garlands of marigolds above the main entrance to their homes to protect themselves from evil forces.

Like their giant relatives, the sunflowers, marigolds follow the course of the sun. In a traditional flower horologe (a circle of flowering plants that indicate the time of day) the pot marigold stands for nine in the morning (when its flowers open) and three in the afternoon (when its flowers close).

During Victorian times, an era when words were often left unspoken, marigolds signified grief. Sending a marigold bouquet to people you trusted made them aware of your sorrow. However, a posy of marigolds mixed with other flowers expressed other emotions. For example, to offer a combination of marigolds and poppies was a gesture of support in a time of grief.

In recent years, with our renewed interest in herbal remedies and edible flowers, pot marigolds have made a comeback. Crushed marigold petals, for instance, have been found to be beneficial for skin lesions, such as bee or wasp stings.

In the kitchen, the pot marigold continues to be a culinary delight. However, when planning to serve a tangy marigold leaf salad or to use the edible flowers, make sure that your plants are “pure” and organically grown. Do not eat flowers or plants picked from roadsides or bought at nurseries or florists. These plants have not been grown for human consumption and may have been treated with pesticides or other chemicals. Furthermore, eat only the flower petals (remove all pistils and stamens) from pot marigolds and all other daisy-like flowers. I would advise you to grow your own edible flowers or find a certified organic grower. (One final warning: people suffering from allergies, asthma or hay fever should abstain from eating flowers of any kind.)

If you want to recreate a traditional cottage garden, look for older varieties of pot marigold like ‘Princess Mix.’ With its orange, yellow and cream, dark-eyed open flowers, it is an excellent choice. Another variety, beloved at the end of the 19th century, is the ‘Hen and Chicks’ marigold (C. officinalis ‘Prolifera’). This type features yellow flowerheads (“hens”), each of which is surrounded by smaller flowerheads (“chicks”). (This variety seldom comes true from seed; sometimes the same plant will produce both regular and ‘Prolifera’ flowers; even root propagation does not produce predictable results.)

During the last 20 years, plant breeders have taken considerable interest in the versatility of the pot marigold. The modest ancient marigolds have evolved into stunning beauties that retain the old varieties’ easy-going qualities. Every gardener can now effortlessly grow marigold flowers ranging in colour from pale yellow and pink to fiery reddish-mahogany. Marigold eyes now vary from orangey-yellow to brown, black and even green.

When looking for marigold plants at nurseries, you will most likely find ‘Bon Bon’ and ‘Pacific Beauty.’ ‘Bon Bon,’ a compact (height 20 centimetres), vigorous mix, offers a wide selection of double and single flowers, ranging from whitish-yellow and pale apricot to bright orange. ‘Pacific Beauty’ marigolds are long-stemmed (height 50 centimetres), make for excellent cut flowers and display a mix of colours, including apricot, yellow and gold.

Among the most spectacular modern marigold varieties are those vibrantly golden or orange doubles with large green centres: ‘Greenheart Gold’ and ‘Greenheart Orange.’ Both are excellent performers, growing to approximately 60 centimetres tall.

Equally delightful, yet completely different, is the early-blooming, whitish-lemon double ‘Buttermilk Baby.’ Featuring big brown eyes, it grows to about 30 centimetres.

Gardeners who love flowers with an identity crisis should definitely try ‘Geisha Girl.’ When just opening, these large flowers resemble bright-orange chrysanthemums. Two other easy beauties, ‘Coffee Cream’ (40 centimetres) and ‘Tangerine Pink’ (30 centimetres), feature double flowers with small eyes, brownish and yellowish-reddish, respectively.

A real novelty, also breaking the colour barrier, is ‘Touch of Red Buff.’ It offers large flowers, five centimetres across, with pale- apricot petals showing a reddish reverse and a reddish-brown centre.

Long-stemmed and around 50 centimetres tall, ‘Indian Prince,’ ‘Gold Prince,’ ‘Orange Prince’ and ‘Fiesta Gitana’ offer smaller blooms than those cultivars described earlier, but their colour range is exuberant and absolutely festive. These bright-orange and yellow flowers with red-rimmed petals (especially ‘Indian Prince,’ which is reddish on the reverse of its petals) will cheer up even the gloomiest of days. And, as an added bonus, they have an impressively long vase life.

Raising marigolds from seed is simple. The seeds are relatively large and easy to handle; they generally germinate within two weeks. I usually start half of my seeds indoors under lights in mid March (I use convenient peat pellets that I buy in bulk in early January). The other half I seed directly into their designated garden beds or containers in April when heavy frost is no longer a threat (plant the seeds about five millimetres deep, approximately 10 centimetres apart). Both methods yield a germination of close to 100 per cent. As summer proceeds, I diligently push seeds from spent and deadheaded flowers into the ground. By fall I have a new marigold crop that continues well into mild winters. (Even if you don’t want to increase the quantity of your marigold plants, deadheading is still necessary to ensure continuous bloom.)

For best results plant marigold seedlings at least 20 centimetres apart in an area with good air circulation, sheltered from hot midday sun. Notwithstanding a good pinching back of the young plants (a must for most varieties), many modern marigold types are a bit floppy. Staking plants, especially brittle ones, is quite an art. I solved the problem by surrounding my young plants with pieces of low, flexible wire fencing poked into the soil. Once the marigolds are mature, their abundant foliage will completely hide these supports.

Marigolds are showiest in the cool days of spring and fall. During a hot, dry summer they need watering and often start to sulk; cut them back by a third to provide them with a new stimulus and by fall they will be in their prime again.

Having spent many springs, summers and even winters in the easy company of marigolds, I have one caveat to share with my fellow gardeners: not all marigold seeds “come true.” Chances are that some of your seedlings will look different from what you expected, some might look like the ancient cottage marigold, some might be double instead of single, some might shine brighter, some might be paler. No matter what the result, growing marigolds means embarking on a voyage of horticultural discovery. Order your pot marigold seeds now for spring planting and enjoy the trip!

Writer Ingeborg van Driel devotes most of her free time to hands-on experiments with plants in her beloved garden in Cobble Hill, B.C.