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By Ellen Probert Williamson
The marigold is one of the most popular of the pretty annuals we plant in our gardens in early spring. Just the thought of their sunny color conveys a feeling of warmth and golden sun.
Marigolds are also called calendulas or, in Mexico, tegates. Flowers, especially marigolds, play a large part in Mexican life. They have great religious significance and are much used in the celebration of Cinco de Mayo, which is just past on our calendars. Marigolds also figure largely in church life, food and decoration.
They have a venerable history. In the 4th century B.C., famed historian Theophrastus wrote extensively about the merits of this “golden flower.” Theophrastus was born on the island of Lesbos and, as a young man, was the pupil of Aristotle in Athens.
When Aristotle died, he bequeathed his library and school to Theophrastus, who carried on the school so successfully that, at one time, there were more than 1,000 students. Upon his death, the account of his funeral said, “The whole population of Athens, honoring him greatly, followed him to the grave carrying the golden flowers.”
The Romans gave us the generic name from the calends, the first day of every month in the Roman calendar. The claim was made that these yellow flowers were always in bloom on the calends of every month in the year. That would have been entirely possible in southern Italy, where marigolds were cultivated both as garden ornaments and medicinal herbs “which would help mightily ye scorpian-bitten.”
This is, of course, the source of their botanical name, calendula. The Greeks called them gold flowers.
“Sow marigolds and spinach in April or May,” wrote England’s Sir John Hill in 1757. He was referring to his kitchen and herb garden. Marigolds for centuries had been used in soups and salads, and they were listed as “goldes” in 15th-century cookbooks. They were major ingredients in “possets” and other drinks.
An Elizabethan cookbook calls for marigolds to be used as flavoring for a broth in which “to stu sparrows or larkes.” You were to “parboil the larkbirds before and then laye them on sops.” (Sops are now referred to as toast points.)
Marigolds have been greatly revered over the centuries for their medicinal, culinary and cosmetic qualities. Since Shakespeare’s time, it has been believed that “to look on Marigolds will draw evil humors out of your head.”
Marigolds came to this country with our first settlers. Civil War records tell of marigold poultices used to treat soldiers’ wounds.
Joseph E. Meyer, in his 1917 “The Herbalist, wrote that marigolds contain vitamin C and phosphorus, “good for teeth and bones.” In Joseph Krutch’s later “herbal,” he declares that some of our most dramatic modern drugs are derived from plants.
Poets through the centuries have sung of the marigold’s golden beauty. Gardeners love them because they’re easy to grow and are protective of other plants. Cooks have long respected their culinary virtues.
One medieval feast was thus described: “Marigolds were the seasoning for the venison, roses graced the stew, and violets were mingled with wild onions in the salad.”
In the early days of this country, dried marigold petals and many other herbs were sold by the ounce from a wooden barrel in many country stores.
Our ancestors have left us many recipes using marigolds in stews, soups, cakes, pickles, “possets and Potages.” Dutch chefs have left us many recipes listing marigolds as the secret ingredient.
Many wine and cordial recipes use marigolds in their manufacture. It is similar to saffron in its golden color and pleasantly bitter taste.
You can use chopped marigold blossoms in salads, soups, scrambled eggs, muffins and other foods to add fragrance, color and a faintly spicy taste.
Flowers have been treasured for so long for their beauty, scent, medical contributions and magical myths. They add a marvelous dimension to our gardens — and our lives.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.