Day of the Dead Flower, Facts, Ornament, and its Mysticisms

12/11/2020

The Day of the Dead flower, cempasúchil, or cempoalxóchitl in the Nahuatl language, which means flower with twenty petals (from Cempohualli = twenty and Xochitl = flower), is a species native to Mexico and Central America.

Its scientific name is Tagetes erecta L. and it is part of the Asteraceae family, characterized by its flowers resembling stars (in Latin, aster means star). The main characteristics of the marigold are:

Erect plant, with a height that varies between 30 and 110 cm;

Its root is cylindrical, with a fibrous and shallow branched system;

The stem is striated, sometimes ribbed; smooth or with hairs;

Its leaves are opposite, pinnate and are subdivided with green toothed pieces;

The flower is very aromatic and can be pale yellow to intense orange.

In Mexico it is located wild in the states of Chiapas, Jalisco, Puebla, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Oaxaca, and Veracruz; it was domesticated by different indigenous groups before the arrival of the Spaniards to America. For example, the Aztecs cultivated it for ceremonial and medicinal purposes and other cultures gave it diverse uses.

In Mexico, the flower has an important symbolic value since it is used as an offering in the celebration of the Day of the Dead that takes place every year on November 1st and 2nd. In order that its flowering coincides with the celebration of the Day of the Dead, the planting is initiated during the months of June-July. 

The colors of the flowers, from yellow until orange, along with their characteristic aroma give to this celebration a particular mysticism associated with the belief that on those dates the dead return to enjoy the essences of the pleasures that mainly they enjoyed in life. That is why, in the altars that are placed throughout the country, in homes, churches, and public spaces, food and drinks are placed along with other elements that represent the tastes of the dead.

In the 16th century the cempasúchil flower was brought by the Spanish conquerors to Europe, from there its fame spread to other areas of the world. Today this flower is very popular and valued in the United States, China, France, and other regions of Europe. 

Currently, the marigold flower is cultivated all year round, part of it is grown in open fields and part in greenhouses, its demand has been multiplied by the variety of uses that have been developed for this beautiful Mexican flower. 

For example, it can be used for ornamental purposes (especially in religious ceremonies), it is attributed with medicinal properties, it is used as a complement to poultry feed and as a tincture, not only in Mexico, but worldwide. It is also especially important as a ritual plant in Buddhist countries. In Mexico alone, to cover the demand, up to 10 tons of this flower are produced per year.

As already mentioned, the colors of the marigold flower vary from weak yellow to intense orange. This diversity of colors is due to the presence of various carotenes, including lutein. This pigment has been associated with the prevention of age-related eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration. 

By using pigment extraction processes from marigold flowers, extracts are obtained that can be used as colorants in the textile and food industry. These natural pigments can be added to the production of concentrated poultry feeds to improve the appearance of the birds' skin and increase the color of the egg yolks. On the other hand, genetic engineering techniques have been developed to improve the production of carotenes used in the food industry.

The uses of Tagete erecta go beyond its flowers, since its different parts (roots, stems, and leaves) can be used to repel or kill insects. For example, the root is used as an insecticide and nematicide due to its irritating smell and can also be used for lice and tick control.

The cempasúchil flower is not only one of the most representative of Mexico and its Day of the Dead celebration. It is also one of the plants that brings great benefits that captivates and calls the attention of the whole world.

By Arith Pérez-Orozco and Sonia Galicia, Source: Incol