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Marigolds Bridge the Worlds of the Living and Dead

By Emily Ellis

Luis Coronado needed just one thing to complete his altar for el Día de los Muertos. Something that represents ancient Aztec legends. Something that brightens altars in homes throughout Latin America and the United States every autumn. 

Something used around the world to lure the souls of the dead back to earth.

Luckily, he found what he was looking for on sale at Costco.

Tucson Botanical Garden’s Frida Kahlo exhibit featuring traditional Day of the Dead Marigold flowers. (Photo by Emily Ellis)

“You can see why they’re called las flores de los muertos,” says Coronado, a Mexican historian at the University of Arizona.  He hefts a large pot of bobbing golden flowers onto a corner of the altar he has built in the UA Latin American Studies Department. A sickly-sweet smell wafts over the grinning sugar skulls and black-and-white photographs.

“Spirits come from a dark place,” he says. “To attract them to the material world, you need something bright. And something with a very strong aroma.”

Coronado calls the flowers cempasuchil, an indigenous Nahuatl world from central Mexico meaning “twenty petals.” In Hindu culture, where they adorn altars, wedding guests, and corpses all year long, they’re called genda phool.  In English, they are known as marigolds, a reference to European Catholics who placed the flower on altars to the Virgin Mary in place of gold coins. 

The sunny, perky flower thrives in a variety of climates, supports the agricultural economy in developing countries, and has been used across the globe for centuries to bridge the gap between the worlds of the living and the dead. 

“We use them for altars and funerals in India,” says Sukanya Bhat, owner of India Dukaan Grocery on North Campbell Avenue. She didn’t know that marigolds were also used in Hispanic ceremonies, but was not surprised. “We’re all human. Beautiful things connect us together.”  

 Although gardening blogs dispute the geographic origin of marigolds, most botanists agree that multitude of modern subspecies originated from the delicate yellow Aztec marigold. Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors were responsible for spreading the flower to other parts of the world in the 16th century, according to environmental historian Jim J. Parson’s article Latin America and the World of Flowers. 

The use of marigolds in death rituals can be traced back to an Aztec origin myth, in which the sun-god Tonatiuh created the flower to honor two grieving lovers, Xóchitl y Huitzilin. When Xochitl died in battle, Huitzilin asked Tonatiuh to reunite them on earth. The god granted her wish by turning her into a golden flower and her deceased lover into a hummingbird. Ever since, Aztecs used the cempasuchil to call their dearly departed back to the physical world.

 “I don’t think conquistadors said to people ‘hey, you should use this flower in death rituals like the Aztecs do,’” Coronado chuckles. “They look like the sun, which is a strong symbol for all people. That’s why they have worked into so many different cosmologies.”

Marigolds bloom at the Tucson Botanical Garden's Frida Kahlo exhibit. Photo by Emily Ellis.

Marigolds bloom at the Tucson Botanical Garden’s Frida Kahlo exhibit. (Photo by Emily Ellis.)

Jack Lukans, a horticulturist at Green Things Nursery in Tucson, thinks that marigolds’ global popularity is partly due to their economic viability. Despite its reputation, the flower is biologically resilient to death: its strong, musky scent repels many garden pests, and it thrives in nutrient-poor soil.

“If you’re a nursery in Tucson, it’s kind of your civic and economic duty to grow marigolds,” Lukans says. It is a couple days after Tucson’s annual November All Souls Procession, and only a few bedraggled marigolds remain in a corner of the greenhouse. “I planted around 200, and they sold out in days.”

Green Things isn’t the only place turning a profit on the golden flower. On the other side of the border, marigolds play an important role in the Mexican economy in addition to its culture. In 2015, cempasuchil sales throughout the country brought in approximately 90 million pesos in revenue (or $450,000), according to a report from the Mexican Services for Information on Agriculture and Fisheries. 

But for some people, the cultural history, botanical hardiness, and profitability of marigolds doesn’t matter. For them, something is only as meaningful as the energy that grieving individuals pour into it. 

“People from all religions tend to look for signs of a dead loved one in nature – in birds, in flowers,” says Annette Soto, a Cherokee national. She annually attends the free All Souls Community Craftshops held by Tucson-based organization Many Mouths, One Stomach, where anyone can come to make a mask or flower crown to use in Tucson’s All Souls Procession. “It helps people heal from a loss if they can touch something that they believe connects to the spirit world.”

Soto carefully paints bright orange flowers around the edge of her mask, a symbol that, over the centuries, has come to carry the grief of humanity on its fragile petals.