Edible Flowers: Mexican Marigolds; History, Culinary Uses, Varieties and Nutrition

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About the beautiful herbaceous plant Mexican mint marigold or Tagetes lucida. The Tagetes genus of plants, native to Central and South America-are highly nutritious-being a good source of antioxidants. They also have medicinal properties and numerous othe

The name Mexican marigold refers to 56 species of the Tagetes genus of plants in the Asteraceae or sunflower family. Among the Mexican varieties are Tagetes lucida (perennial), also known as winter tarragon, Mexican mint marigold and sweet mace. There are also African and French named varieties, such as tagetes patula (annual). Yet, all of these attractive herbaceous plants originate from South and Central America, in particular Mexico and Guatemala. The leaves and flowers of these plants are edible and have numerous culinary uses. Mexican marigolds have medicinal properties and the flowers are used to make yellow dye for textiles in Central America.

In Central America marigold has been used for ritualistic purposes for centuries by indigenous cultures. The Tarahumara Indians of Chihuahua, Northwestern Mexico, and also present day Huichol Indians of central Mexico, smoked the leaves of Mexican marigold, Tagetes lucida, to induce hallucinations. The narcotic effects of T. lucida, which is also used to make tea, are described as similar; but not as strong as peyote.

The Aztecs dried and ground the leaves and added them to xocolatl, a frothy drink made from cocoa beans, later called "chocolatl" by the Spanish. The leaves were also burned to make insect repellent and yellow dye made from freshly dried flowers was used, along with cochineal, to dye traditional Mayan textiles, a practice that continues today in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico and other parts of Central America.

Image taken in the town of Panajachel, Guatemala, by Chad Fust. Published with creative commons licence at flickr.com

In Mexico, marigolds are also associated with the Day of the Dead celebration, whereas in other parts of the world they have a more joyful significance. In India marigolds have a prominent place in Hindu culture, as they are considered beautiful and pure gifts. Garlands are often made to decorate temples and used for weddings and religious festivals.

Spanish Colonialists brought back to Europe various species of the Tagetes genus, including mint marigold or Tagetes minuta. Both T. minuta and T. lucida grow in cool climates, and adapt well to climate diversities. Tagetes minuta originated from South America where it is known as ‘huacatay‘,in Peruvian Quechua. A paste made from huacatay is used to prepare ocapa, a traditional appetizer from the city of Arequipa in Southern Peru.Tagetes minuta became a popular companion plant in gardens for pest control. Substances are produced in the root of this plant that repels slugs; aphids from tomatoes and deters nematodes from soil. The same can be said of Tagetes patula or French marigold.

An essential oil extracted from this plant, known as tagetes oil, is used for the production of cosmetics, food flavorings and in the pharmaceutical industry.

The Culinary Uses of Mexican Marigolds: Because the leaves of T. lucida have an aniseed scent and flavor, they are often used as a substitute for tarragon, especially in sub-tropical regions where it is difficult to grow tarragon. The leaves of this plant are dried or used fresh like an herb, or spice, to season a wide variety of foods from fish, eggs to sauces and salad dressings. Marigolds are used as a flavoring in sangria, cider, cola, and also Turkish tobacco.

The Nutrition of Mexican Marigolds: Research has demonstrated that Mexican marigold is extremely nutritious, as it contains a number of phytochemicals. These important constituents demonstrate antimicrobial, antifungal, anticancer and antioxidant activities.

The color pigments in the bright orange and yellow colors of the flowers contain the carotenoid lutein. Lutein, also present in sweet potatoes and carrots, helps neutralize harmful, chronic, disease causing free radicals and even helps prevent cell damage and repairs DNA. 

The leaves and roots of Mexican marigold contain the flavonols quercetin, rutin, patuletin and quercetagetin. All four flavonols demonstrate potent free radical scavenging activity. Patuletin is a recently discovered antioxidant, whilst the anticancer properties of quercetin and rutin, also found in apples and grapefruit, have been the subject of research for over a decade.

As is typical for plants of the Compositae botanical family, Mexican marigold contains a number of coumarins; seven have so far been identified. Coumarins are compounds that contribute to the fragrant scent of Mexican marigold and also act as natural plant pesticides. Nutritionally, research has demonstrated, they possess antibacterial, anti-HIV, anti-tumor, anti-hypotension, anti-asthma and antioxidant activity.

Note: Mexican marigold is sometimes confused with pot marigold or Calendula officinalis, a different species.

Image by beautifulcataya; published at flickr.com with creative commons licence. Primary image, T. lucida; Mexican mint marigold. Image by James Gaither, published at flickr.com with creative commons licence.

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