Marigold Flowers: Different Strokes for Different Folks

Learn the difference between varieties of marigold flowers.

| Summer 2012

Look up marigolds online, or visit a few garden forums and you’ll soon see there is an enormous amount of confusion and misinformation about this ancient plant. You’ll discover a lot of people confuse “pot marigold” (Calendula officinalis) and French or African marigolds (Tagetes sp.). Unfortunately you will find the attributes of one, particularly the use in repelling insects, mistakenly attributed to the other. Since they are not the same plant, and don’t have the same qualities, it’s worth separating fact from fiction.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis), called “pot marigold” in Europe, is not related to French or African marigolds. While both are in the overall Compositae/Asteraceae (daisy/aster family), they share few if any of the same uses or effects. Calendula flowers are proven useful for skin ailments, are edible and valuable in their own right, but pot marigold is not the garden marigold with the purported insect-repelling benefits.

Tagetes, with about 50 varieties, includes French marigold (T. petula) that we grow in our flower beds, African marigold (T. erecta), its taller cousin with larger flowers that we plant at the back of flower beds, and Mexican mint marigold (T. lucida) which is known for its tarragon-like flavor in cooking. All three are native to Central and South America. 

In The Aztec Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Bernal Diaz, one of the Spanish Conquistadors, recorded in his diary that the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, had marigolds growing in his gardens. He recorded that the plants were used both in food and medicine, as they still are today. You will find marigold flowers as ingredients in foods, medicines and even chicken feed, to make the egg yolks yellow. 

It is recorded in several ancient sources including the Aztec Herbal, the Badianus Manuscript and other post-conquest documents, that marigolds, specifically T. petula and T. erecta, were an important medicine for treating fevers. T. lucida, the Mexican mint marigold we grow in our herb gardens today, was used for reducing phlegm, treating gout, stiffness of joints and digestive ailments.

A Useful Plant

But what about any of these plants' current uses in repelling insects? Are marigolds truly useful for companion planting or controlling root nematodes? Fortunately, there’s been a great deal of research into those questions. The University of California, Davis, North Carolina State University, University of Florida, and Louisiana State University, have all done extensive research into the effects, or lack of them, on marigold planting; following are some of their results.

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