Orange-colored marigold flowers, known in Mexico as cempaxochitl, are one of the iconic symbols which encircle Mexico’s Day of the Dead traditions.
Cempaxochitl is the flower’s given name in Náuhuatl, and translates to mean the “twenty flowers” —cempa–xochitl— colloquially referred to as flor de muerto and is appointed as the flower-of-choice on every Day of the Dead ofrenda.
A member of the sunflower family, the common varieties are annuals whose stems can grow up to four feet in height. Its bright orange-yellow petals provide depth of color and hues which have become emblematic of the traditions it’s called upon to represent: a celebration of the continuity of life.
These marigolds are an integral part of every ofrenda, and according to Mexican folklore the fragrance and color of these flowers guide the spirits to their altars. The flowers are also used to decorate graves, archways, and crucifixes, and women sometimes wear the flower-heads in their hair as part of the traditional Catrina costume.
The colorful petals are traditionally used to create a pathway that leads from the street into the home, and onward the altar itself; when you visit local markets in Mexico this time of year, you’ll find vendors selling the loose marigold petals for this purpose.
The flower petals are edible and can be used to add color and layers of flavor to fresh salads, and some people feed the flower petals to their chickens to make their egg-yolks appear a deep yellow. The flowers and their stems are employed in the preparation of herbal medicines, and the petals are also used to make yellow food coloring and dyes.
Markets across Mexico begin selling cempaxochitl from around mid-October onward; the flowers can be purchased in bunches, as potted plants, individual flower heads, and loose petals. It’s virtually impossible to wander around in Mexico during late October without witnessing these bright and enlivening flowers.
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