Marigold: The Mexican flower that has become a part of Indian festivals

From Dussehra to Diwali, marigolds are everywhere. Garlands of glowing orange blooms are hung for auspicious reasons and flowers are offered in rituals. Marigolds are so deeply part of these Indian festivals that it is a real surprise to learn that the most commonly used kinds originated in Mexico and have been in India barely 350 years.

There is a parallel here with chillies, another American plant now seen as intrinsically Indian. One plausible theory is that chillies spread rapidly because they were a more efficient substitute for an existing spice, pippali or long pepper which grows in the hills of Kerala. Chilli pods looked like long pepper, but grew more widely and offered more reliable pungency so were quickly adopted instead.

Marigolds were originally flowers of the Calendula family, also brightly coloured in shades of orange and yellow, but with simpler petals. They grow widely across Eurasia and were often used in religious rituals, whether as the genda-phool of India or flowers sacred to the Virgin Mary, hence their English name of marigold.

Mexican marigolds are members of the Tagetes family and also had sacred status with the Aztecs. Just as we put marigold garlands on dead bodies, piles of orange flowers are used for Mexico’s Day of the Dead, an ancient festival now appropriated by the Church. One practical reason for their use in funerals might be that the flowers and leaves contain powerfully insect-repelling oils.

The Aztecs made much use of this oil in medicine. Tagetes flowers were recommended for everything from people struck by lightning to those with uncontrollable hiccups. When Tagetes came to India, as part of the flow of plants between Old and New Worlds known as the Columbian Exchange, Ayurveda was quick to appreciate its medicinal properties as well.

Tagetes plants grew easily, repelled insects naturally and produced an attractive flower with the orange-yellow of Calendula but a more striking fluffy flower. Farmers started cultivating them instead and now they are mostly what we mean by marigold. The other similarity they shared were that both flowers were edible, which we might remember from the film Monsoon Wedding with its marigold munching marriage contractor.

Even their tastes are similar. Calendula has a peppery note and, when dried, a pleasant aroma like grass cut in summer. Orange Tagetes f lowers have a slightly bitter, yet savoury note (the yellow ones seem tasteless). Their main culinary value is for their vivid colour. The dried flowers have been used as a saffron substitute and are fed to chickens to make their yolks and flesh a more appetising yellow.

Dried Calendula forms part of Georgian khmeli-suneli spice mixture and you can find recipes that use it to colour both cakes and salads. The dried petals also make a wonderfully golden-coloured tea. As with all herbal teas, it should be consumed in moderation and watching out for side effects, but it is fragrant, soothing and a reminder of the ancient uses of marigolds, beyond just Dussehra and Diwali decoration.

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