Plant 390

Tagetes species (Asteraceae)

French and African marigolds

The common names French marigold (Tagetes patula) and African marigold (Tagetes erecta) reflect assumptions made about these garden plants’ origins when they were first introduced into Britain during the late sixteenth century. By the end of the following century, they were common garden plants across Europe.

The genus Tagetes is native to neither Europe nor Africa. It is naturally distributed in the Americas from the southwestern United States to southern South America. The majority of the approximately 40 Tagetes species are found in south-central Mexico, where they have a history of medicinal, culinary and ceremonial use extending long before the arrival of the Spanish, and the plants introduction to the Old World. Among these many uses were the flowers as a source of an orange-yellow dye. Today, this dye is known as lutein (E161b), which is used as a natural colouring for human food and animal rations.

In 1542, in his De historia stirpium, one of the founding books of modern scientific botanical illustration, the German physician Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) used the name ‘Tagetes indica’ for a colourful garden plant recently introduced into Germany. ‘Tagetes’, adopted as the scientific name for the plant’s genus more than two centuries later, apparently commemorates Tages, an Etruscan deity, dislodged from the earth by a plough. One species, the South American black mint (Tagetes minuta), which is a source of the essential oil ‘tagette’ used in perfumery and flavouring food and tobacco, has become an invasive species of disturbed areas in parts of its introduced range.

Many species of Tagetes have foetid foliage, dotted with prominent oil glands. This led one late sixteenth-century English herbalist to conclude that garden Tagetes: ‘are most venomous and full of poison, and therefore not to be touched or smelled unto, much lesse used on meat or medicine’. Despite such beliefs, annual French and African marigolds have remained popular European horticulture plants since they were first introduced. Many cultivars have been selected for their garish, intensely coloured flowerheads which range from white through oranges and yellow to reds. Some species are more pleasantly scented. For example, the aniseed-scented foliage of Tagetes lucida is sometimes used as a substitute for tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus).

In horticulture, Tagetes species are sometimes used as companion plants. This appears to be associated with the plant’s essential oils that can kill nematodes, insects and microbes. The oils have even been reported to have anti-malarial properties.

Kaplan L 1960. Historical and ethnobotanical aspects of domestication in Tagetes. Economic Botany 14: 200-202.

Neher RT 1968. The ethnobotany of Tagetes. Economic Botany 22: 317-325.

Vasudevan P 1997. Tagetes: a multipurpose plant. Bioresource Technology 62: 29-35.

Stephen Harris