How the marigold became a global icon, from Mexico to India
Published October 24, 2022
12 min read
It’s the time of year for marigolds. In homes across India and its diaspora, garlands of the fiery orange-and-yellow flowers adorn doorways and holiday tables in honor of Diwali, the five-day festival of lights that takes place each fall. As November 1 approaches, marigold bouquets will begin to appear in homes across Mexico and Central America. Called the flor de muerto, these flowers figure prominently in traditional Day of the Dead celebrations each year–a cheerful flower that reminds observers of the brevity of life while they honor loved ones who have passed.
Native to the Americas, marigolds have played an important ceremonial role in Mexico since pre-Columbian times–beginning with the Nahua, who believed the blooms were a gift from the sun god “so that they might honor their dead.”
But since Spanish and Portuguese traders first transported them to India more than 350 years ago, marigolds have also starred in celebrations across the continent. They are also a common part of weddings and other religious celebrations, beyond Diwali.
National Geographic photographers have long captured the joy that these two cultures take in marigolds. Explore our archives to learn how this humble flower became an iconic.
A woman is seen standing under an umbrella in a cemetery during the Day of the Dead or Dia de Muertos. In the pre-Hispanic era, the Nahua used marigolds–also called cempasuchil, the flower of 400 lives–to honor their dead who they believed could be kept alive in memory and spirit. But the flowers also served medicinal purposes: One 16th-century record indicates that they were used to cure hiccups and treat people who had been struck by lightning.
Mourners light candles on graves on the Day of the Dead in Santa Maria Atzompa, Mexico. This holiday is celebrated every November 1 and 2. It is believed that the souls of the deceased return to Earth during this holiday. Many families decorate their loved ones’ graves with marigolds. Their bright colors and heady smell are believed to attract spirits. Some families create paths of marigolds to guide their loved ones home. (Top 10 things to know about the Day of the Dead. )
Left: A burial site is adorned with flowers during the Day of the Dead celebration in San Antonino, Mexico. Because marigolds are also believed to have cleansing properties, some families arrange marigolds in the shape of a cross to cleanse the souls of their loved ones.
Right: A Zapotec woman holds vigil at her home during the Day of the Dead. Families also build altars with ofrendas–offerings–to honor loved ones who have died. The altars are often decorated with marigold bouquets and lit with candles.
Mayans observe their own version of Day of the Dead, a celebration called Hanal Pixan, meaning “food for the souls.” They, too, create altars in honor of dead loved ones, which are adorned with marigolds, candles, and offerings of fresh fruit to nourish the spirits of the departed.
Women celebrate Holi at the Gopinath Temple in India. Flowers have long been featured in Hindu ceremonies as an offering to the gods. They are also used to show respect and admiration for politicians and married couples as well as the dead. “…flowers are the food of the spirit, a sign of respect and love,” anthropologist Jack Goody wrote in his book The Culture of Flowers. The marigolds were quickly adopted by South Asia after their arrival.
Flower vendors from the Mullick Ghat flower market in Kolkata hold garlands of orange and yellow marigolds. “Today the culture of flowers in India is dominated by the garland that decorates the shoulders of everyone from the politicians to statues, to married couples and the dead,” Goody writes.
Vendors vie for business at the vast Malik Ghat flower market, where marigold garlands are sold as decorations for weddings, festivals, and religious events. Goody writes that these flowers are “in constant demand” in India, but especially during Diwali, which is the country’s most important holiday and celebrates the triumph over evil. (For some, Diwali also marks the beginning of a new year–here’s what to know about the holiday. A groom is invited to his bride’s house during a traditional Himalayan wedding. It’s traditional in some communities for the bride’s family to present a silver platter with rice and other auspicious items–in this case, including marigold petals. Marigolds are edible and were even depicted as a snack in the movie Monsoon Wedding.
A marigold tips the sword of a garlanded Sikh festivalgoer in Jaipur, originally published in National Geographic‘s May 1963 issue dedicated to the culture of the Indian subcontinent. Marigolds are often associated with Hindu festivals but they have special significance for people from all faiths in the Indian subcontinent.
A man is seen dipping his body into the Ganges River, which is believed purifies the soul. It’s surrounded by marigolds, trash, and other waste. The Hindu festival Ganga Dussehra celebrates the day when the holy river is believed to have descend from heaven. Marigolds are also present in this festival.
Archaeobotanist Jack Harlan marveled at the abundance of marigolds at the 1960 Dussehra festival in northwest India’s Kulu Valley. “Marigolds were everywhere. Garlands were sold in the streets, draped from tents and hung over doorsways, and worn around the neck,” he wrote. “The marigold is a sacred flower in the Kulu valley and varieties of maize and peppers have been bred to match its color.”
Marigold petals strewn inside the temple at Kusum Sarovar, a sacred water reservoir in Uttar Pradesh. Legend has it that Hindu god Krishna would visit the forest surrounding the reservoir, where he made flower garlands for the goddess Radha.
Above: Marigold garlands hang over the heads of Hindu pilgrims at the temple of Jageshwar in the Himalayas. The biggest temple complex in the world, Jageshwar consists of more than 125 big and small temples dedicated to Shiva, a god with the power to destroy and recreate the universe.
Below: A girl sells flowers for prayer offerings to the holy Yamuna River in Vrindavan, Uttar Predesh, India.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.