My grandfather was a proper English gentleman, but he gardened like a passionate Latin. The flowers and vegetables in his Winnipeg plot grew jumbled together—all colours and kinds—whatever caught his fancy in that year's catalogues. No matter what his current passion, however, I could always count on two things: beefsteak tomatoes standing tall at the back of the house, and ruffled, burnt-orange marigolds marching single file along the front. Today, with my grandfather and his garden long gone, I can't conceive of my garden without at least a few (and often many more) marigolds.
This eternally cheerful annual sometimes gets overlooked, shunned by gardeners simply because it's easy to grow and so readily available. But there's more in the marigold family than the ubiquitous tall orange orbs that were my grandfather's standby. With warm autumn colours ranging from light yellow and gold through to flaming oranges and red-oranges to deep russets and reddish browns, in all forms from tall cutting types to dainty gems for rockeries, marigolds offer brilliant blooms from mid-summer until frost.
When the Spanish explorer Cortez discovered large, orange Tagetes in South America during the 1500s, he called them marigolds. They reminded him of "pot marygolds" (Calendula officinalis) growing at home with the same brilliant colour only they were much more flamboyant in shape. (See Calendula: The other marigold). Cortez sent seeds back to Spain, where the showy Aztec immigrant grew easily and its popularity quickly spread to France and North Africa.
Nowadays, when people think of marigolds, it's not calendulas, but varieties of Tagetes that come to mind. And in spring, these are what most of us choose for our gardens, probably because they thrive in Canada's hot, humid summers. There are three main species and literally dozens of cultivars to choose from.
Top photo: French marigold