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Mary’s Gold

By Miguel Braganza

The bobbing orange, butter yellow, ochre and lemon yellow heads of marigold flowers are a sight to see on the borders of fields filled with green and ripening red chillies. In the tomato cultivating regions of Southern Spain and France, the marigold plants and flowers are even more ubiquitous. The Bollywood film “Yeh Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” has made the Tomatina festival known to people in India, and, interestingly, the name marigold came to India from the same region, way back in the sixteenth century with the devotion to Mary in Fatima and Lourdes. The plants have been cultivated for centuries in India and the flowers find the now traditional usage in wedding ceremonies and pooja as chillies have found their way into our masala and curries. Rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but the Konkani term ‘Rosam’ has nothing to do with the Latin ‘Rosa’ and the English ‘Rose’. Rosam is the local word for marigold.

What then is the connection between marigold, chillies and tomatoes?

Many centuries ago, farmers on the Mediterranean coast found that tomatoes grew better when grown near plots of marigold plants. They did not why and how, but they knew that there was a tangible benefit. Marigold plants can be raised easily from the papery seeds bunched at the base of the flower petals. So they grew marigold in other fields where traditionally only tomatoes were grown and gained economically through better yields of tomatoes. The Spanish and the French do not make garlands of marigolds, so they gave the flowers to their children to place at the feet of the statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The piles of golden marigold flowers at the feet of Mary soon came to be known as “Mary’s Gold” or Marie’s Gold. The name marigold for the flowers was a natural progression.

The other name for curiosity is science. Some people were curious to know why tomato plants did better when grown together with marigold plants. The first thing they noticed was that butterflies preferred the large, showy flowers of marigold to the small, dull and unattractive flowers of tomatoes and chillies. The butterflies laid their eggs on the marigold plant and the leaf-miner caterpillar infestation on the nearby tomato, chilli and capsicum plants was greatly reduced as a result. The plants had more active leaf area for photosynthesis and produced a bigger harvest. The role of the marigold in attracting insects to itself is now known as “Trap cropping”.

What is visible is often the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the picture is hidden from view. It was exactly the same case with the benefits of the marigold or Tagetes erecta plants. The roots of the marigold plants produced exudates that suppressed the root-knot nematodes in the soil. This microscopic animal enters the root system of tomato plants and ties it up in knots. The plant is not able to transport water from the soil to the leaves and has either reduced productivity or produces no fruits at all. Just growing the marigold plant is enough to change all this for the better. This is one form of “Nurse cropping” using the pest suppressant properties of marigold.

In India, marigolds are used in poojas, to decorate wedding mantaps, and the stage for cultural programs and political meetings alike. Flower garlands are used for Dusshera, Diwali, Laxmi Pooja, Durga Pooja, Ganesh Chaturthi and other major festivals in India. Mary’s gold is not offered to saints and other venerable dead only in India. Marigold flowers are used across religions and even by agnostics to welcome comrades in various spheres of the civil society. Marigold’s warm yellow, orange or saffron colours signify warmth and sacrifice alike. Marigold flowers now find application in petals therapy and aroma therapy. The dried petals are used to extract yellow pigment as a food colour and cloth dye. The dried petals are powdered and mixed in chicken feed to give a more intense colour to egg yolks. The powder is also used in rangoli and during the holi festival. As the years go by, more and more applications are being found for the flower that is truly worth its weight in gold.

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