Marigolds: A Friendly Face in the Kitchen Garden

A drive through any town in America reveals highway medians and tubs at gas stations brimming with the same combination, and six-packs of the three lining the tables at garden centers. Yes, marigolds are flowers for the masses but marigolds have many virtues in the kitchen garden, in addition to the bright, season-long color they bring to vegetable beds.

The many hybrids and cultivars of marigolds available today come from three species: Tagetes erecta, T. patula, and T. tenuifolia, all native to the dry, hot regions of the west, from New Mexico down to Argentina. Plants were first taken to Europe in the 14th century by the Spanish explorer Cortez. They earned their common name when the gold blooms were used to decorate altars to the Virgin Mary, hence, Mary’s gold. In spite of the flower’s origin, plant breeders call varieties from T. erecta African or American marigolds and those from T. patula, French marigolds. The Signets are bred from T. tenuifolia.

African marigolds are the biggest of the three, growing as tall as 36 in. French marigolds are more compact and bushy, and flowers in this group may come with paprika coloring as well as yellow and orange. Open any seed catalog and you’re likely to find two or three pages of marigold offerings. Plant breeders have had a heyday with marigolds. In 1915, David Burpee of Burpee Seed Company began investing heavily in marigold development. Other seed companies followed suit and during the 1920′s the color variations and forms increased dramatically. Burpee was the first seed company to introduce a white marigold, a hybrid of T. erecta.

Marigolds are perfectly at home in the kitchen garden, where many people plant them not only for the cheery flowers but also because their pungent foliage may help repel aphids and other pests. French marigolds are effective against harmful soil nematodes. It seems the marigold roots contain a substance that’s damaging to the nematodes. If you’re thinking about trying this in your own garden, keep in mind the marigolds must be planted in a solid block to fill the nematode-infested soil, and they must be grown for a full season to do the job.

Growing marigolds couldn’t be easier. The large seed germinates easily, either directly sown in the garden after the soil has warmed, or earlier indoors. Watch out for damping off if you start marigolds inside. Flowers will appear about eight weeks after sowing. The plants appreciate moderately fertile, well-drained soil in a sunny location. French marigolds can tolerate hot, dry sites as can the Signets, which are sometimes referred to as rock garden marigolds. They’ll be just as happy in the herb garden with Mediterranean companions like thyme, rosemary, and sage.

If African marigolds are sometimes considered garish, with their giant neon yellow and orange pom-pon flowers, then Signet marigolds can certainly be regarded as the more refined cousins. Names like ‘Lemon Gem’ and ‘Tangerine Gem’ hint at the citrusy aroma of their lacy foliage. Dainty yellow or orange flowers cover the bushy plants. These marigolds make wonderful edging in the kitchen garden, and the flowers may be used as edible garnish.

Another species, T. lucida, or Mexican mint marigold, has also found its way into the kitchen. A native of Mexico and Guatemala, it can be used as a substitute for tarragon. The sweet-smelling leaves have a hint of anise and can be used for tea.

Farmers have also found a use for marigolds. For years, they have included the open-pollinated African marigold ‘Crackerjack’ in chicken feed because it makes egg yolks a darker yellow.