Autumn in New England is a golden time of year. In a few short weeks, the leaves will be ready to put on their grand finale of color and the air will soon be filled with the warm smell of apple cider, pumpkin pie and Octoberfest ales. The green grass we’ve enjoyed all summer has begun to turn a golden yellow and brown. And, to those of us who despise the cold, dreary days of winter, the last few days of summer-like warmth are treasured more than gold.
The one piece of fall that I enjoy the most is the bright blooms of the marigold. Described by Rand B. Lee, author of Pleasures of the Cottage Garden, as “desperately vulgar,” the marigold is a staple in many New England gardens.
By this time, almost everything in my garden has long since stopped trying to please me with flowers. The plants efforts are now focused mostly underground, where roots grow deep to stockpile energy. Deeper and deeper they dive in order to escape the hard freeze of a typical Maine winter.
Sure, most of the plants are still green, but I believe this in only to prevent us from thinking that they are dead and digging them up. The green of late fall is for self-preservation only. Just for keeping up appearances.
So why does the bold marigold seem to shine so bright while others are fading into hibernation? What gives marigolds the right to thumb their noses at cooler days and colder nights that make other plants run for cover? Marigolds have attitude. They are the bad-boy flower.
However, I don’t think they are reckless. They have a secret. They can live forever – and I have proof.
For as long as I can remember, my father loved marigolds. Every spring he would toss handfuls of seeds from an overflowing coffee can around the yard like it was grass seed. When summer finally arrived, every sunny spot in the yard was filled with bright yellow, red and orange blossoms.
I used to wonder how this happened. Was my father skimming seeds from a secret source? Did he have an ‘in’ with the folks at Burpee? Surely we could not afford to actually buy as many seeds as were thrown around each spring. So where did they all come from?
I can still remember my dad showing me where he got his seemingly endless supply of marigolds plants, without ever visiting a nursery.
After plucking a dried flower and cracking open its sheath, my dad revealed a tight cluster of 20-25 needle-like white and black seeds. I learned that each marigold blossom had the ability to reproduce itself several times over. A single plant, which could produce 20 flowers during a season, could likewise yield more than 500 seeds for next season! Talk about a lasting legacy.
Every fall, my dad would faithfully ‘harvest’ his golden crop of spent marigold blossoms into an empty shoebox, coffee can or whatever else he could find. Those seeds would spend the rest of the winter on a shelf in the shed waiting for the first warm, wet days of spring.
Apparently, seeds that were pampered by spending the cold winter months in the warmth of the basement did not come to life as vibrantly the following spring – their toughness evident even before birth.
Living in suburban Massachusetts, the size of our yard could never possibly support the amount of marigolds that were available to us each year. As a result, my father made it a point to share his annual harvest with neighbors, friends, relatives and perhaps even a few total strangers. I would always delight in seeing the faces of these recipients, who, expecting to get a paper-thin envelope, would receive a sandwich bag bursting at the seams with seeds.
I don’t know if my Dad ever shared the secret of where his endless supply came from with others, but I do know there are many people, including myself, who can’t pass a marigold now without thinking of him.
Marigolds are a plant that is hard to ignore and even harder to forget. Their strong fragrance, bright colors and longevity keep them going until the harshest of frosts hit.
Even when they are gone, like my father, they leave behind everything you need to keep them close by for many years to come. You just have to know where to look.