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The Marigold in California

Articles: The Marigold in California
A poster for the now-defunct American Marigold Society, showing the diversity of flower types, with African marigolds (top), French marigolds (middle), and single-flowered Signet marigolds (bottom center). Artist unknown; reproduced by permission Elizabeth Christensen
A poster for the now-defunct American Marigold Society, showing the diversity of flower types, with African marigolds (top), French marigolds (middle), and single-flowered Signet marigolds (bottom center). Artist unknown; reproduced by permission Elizabeth Christensen

. . . a valuable annual should not be neglected because it is so common and easy to grow and because it was so much overdone in monotonous lines in the old bedding days. Many good plants have of late suffered from a kind of mistaken prejudice on this account (but) it should be remembered that if the plant was misused it was not the fault of the plant but that of the general acceptance of a poor sort of gardening.

Gertrude Jekyll, Annuals and Biennials, 1916

Before you tip your aristocratic noses in the air, stop a minute and think about the beautiful marigold. There is nothing more joyous and life enhancing than yellow, golden, bronze, or orange marigolds in full bloom, day after day, and week after week. People buy the plants in their millions and plant them year after year. The term “vulgar” is actually appropriate here: it means “pertaining to the people.”

The largest users of vivid annuals such as marigolds are city park departments. Their employees must be sure that their chosen flowers will perform as well as possible for the amount of time, money, and effort that goes into public landscapes. Sturdy marigold hybrids suit this purpose perfectly.

The latest USDA Floricultural Census (1998) showed that the marigold ranked seventh on the list of the most popular garden plants—an impressive showing. It does not, however, take into account the millions of plants grown from seed by home gardeners. Marigolds are among the easiest of annuals to grow from seed.

Little is written about marigolds in garden literature. There are almost no monographs or other works devoted to its species or cultivars. Many of the marigold’s manifest virtues were instilled in them here in California over the past fifty years.

History and Discovery

Marigolds (Tagetes spp.) are endemic to the Americas, primarily in Mexico and Central America, regardless of their common names of French marigold and African marigold. One species is found in Africa, but it is not the plant commonly known as African marigold; some authorities believe that this plant may be a naturalized weed. In all, there are about forty species of Tagetes, two of which are the basis for almost all of the modern garden types.

Tagetes erecta is tall and bushy, with a rather uncompromising habit. Returning Spanish missionaries and explorers took seeds collected in Mexico back to Spain in the early sixteenth century and grew them in monastery gardens. The plants soon spread to gardens in France and North Africa. By 1535, when English and other explorers traveled to Tunis, the flower had become naturalized. The visitors thought they were native and named them African marigolds (Flos africanus). In this wild form, they are not good “team players” for the modern garden, but they do have bright colors and grow vigorously.

Tagetes patula, named the French marigold because it was thought to originate in France, is smaller and more graceful. Not much is known about how it got to France, but even William Robinson, the irascible author of The English Flower Garden, recommended it for borders in the late 1880s. It also comes in many colors, including some with warm bronze and reddish tints. Its colorful flowers and its diminutive habit have made it indispensable to plant breeders.

The Signet marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia) is sometimes found in modern gardens, where it is popular for its delicate, lacy foliage. Sweet marigold, or Mexican tarragon (T. lucida) has been grown for many years but is not part of modern commercial breeding.

One of Mathilde Holtrop’s finest introductions, Tagetes ‘Inca’. Photographer unknown; reproduced by permission Glenn Goldsmith - See more at: https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/the-marigold-of-california/#sthash.7aJgQhU4.dpuf
One of Mathilde Holtrop’s finest introductions, Tagetes ‘Inca’. Photographer unknown; reproduced by permission Glenn Goldsmith

Non-ornamental Uses

Later travelers to Mexico noted that various species of marigold had uses apart from their floral beauty. Decoctions of the flower heads, used as a tea, are still drunk today as a stimulant and diuretic, rather like black or green tea made from Camellia sinensis. People also collected marigold stems, formed them into bales, dried them, and used them as fuel.

One of the most striking uses is in the celebrations for the “Day of the Dead” on All Souls Day in Guatemala and Mexico. A local name for the marigold is, consequently, Flor de Muerto. Both fresh and dried flower heads are used to decorate cemeteries and graves. This practice goes back to antiquity: an Aztec rite was grafted onto a Christian observance. Dr Patrizia Granziera, a Mexican scholar, has shown that individual flowers not only symbolized the gods but were, in themselves, gods on occasion.

Marigolds are so entwined with religious life in India that it is hard to imagine they were only imported about 350 years ago. The flowers are braided into garlands and swags for weddings, and decorate temples for many ceremonies. No other flower is as popular there.

A contemporary use for the marigold is in poultry keeping. Although otherwise adequate and nutritious, the standard commercial poultry feed is low in xanthines (yellow pigments); when it is provided as a steady diet, chickens look pallid, and their egg yolks are pale. Poultry firms tried to make up for this deficiency in several ways, to no avail. Adding marigold petals and extract to the chicken feed did the trick. The owners of Ralston Purina asked David Burpee for help in the 1960s. The ‘Orangeade’ and ‘Scarletade’ series are now grown on a gigantic scale to supply this market.[1. Meyer, All the Best and Nothing Else.] In a rather odd way, David Burpee was back to where his father had started—selling chicken feed.

Introduction into the United States

Marigolds were introduced into the United States at various times.[2. Adams, Restoring American Gardens]The first notice of Tagetes erecta was in 1760; Townley of Boston offered “Africans” in their catalog. Spurrier listed French marigolds (T. patula) in 1793. Tagetes tenuifolia was introduced in 1797 and could be purchased in Boston by 1867. “Striped dwarfs” were available in the United States in 1800. By 1858, Joseph Breck of Boston referred to marigolds as “well-known tender annuals, one of the old-fashioned flowers; deservedly popular from the brilliancy and variegation of its flowers.” It is amusing to see them listed as “old-fashioned” in 1858.

Breeders were always looking for improvements in the marigold’s hardiness, length of flowering season, uniformity of height and blossom size, as well as pest and disease resistance. Though generally tough, Tagetes can be susceptible to spider mites and a few other pests. With the switch to F[1. ] hybrids, the cost of producing the seeds or young plants in bulk became an important factor.


Marigolds reached California in 1873. Sweet peas and asters were at the height of their popularity at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The combination of World War I, disease problems, and a natural decline in vigor led to their drop in popularity. David Burpee recognized that a new flower was needed to capture the public’s imagination. Marigolds seemed like a good choice. He had inherited his father’s seed company in 1915 and, within a few years, began investing in the breeding of marigolds. Burpee was an instinctive promoter, always sensing how to build on the public’s needs and desires.

As with any other plant, breeders sought to overcome disadvantages in the species and manipulate naturally occurring advantages. Tagetes erecta was too tall and overbearing; some of the larger ones needed staking. Tagetes patula was a bit wimpy but offered a range of floral colors and tints. Once the breeders made a significant advance, they worked at deriving more selections using the same methods, thus creating a “series” that would give the public broader choices.

Although the marigold is tough, it is still a semi-tropical plant, which may be one reason that it did so well in California. There were successful efforts to improve the flower in England and on the Continent, but nothing on the scale later reached in California. There have been a number of prominent seed companies in the Lompoc region of California, drawn there by its mild climate and fertile soils. The stories that follow show how some of the individuals worked for different companies throughout their careers, often switching back and forth.

A rough classification of marigolds for horticultural purposes is tall, half-tall, semi-dwarf, and dwarf. Single and double flowers are additional variables, as are blossoms that resemble other flowers, like anemones, carnations, or chrysanthemums.

Seed Companies

John Bodger and Son
John Bodger was an English nurseryman who, in 1880, sent his son William to the United States. Eventually, William worked for Theodosia Burr Shepherd in Ventura, a remarkable plantswoman in her own right.

John and an apprentice decided to go to California in 1891; soon after, he called the whole family over to start their own nursery business in Ventura. After John’s death in 1924, his son Walter bought land in Lompoc to grow more flowers, especially marigolds and sweet peas. From 1942 through 1977, Bodger won seven awards for their marigolds at the All-American Selections (AAS) trials.

John Bodger and Son, now simply known as Bodgers, was probably the last large seed business in the Lompoc Valley to be run by the same family, until it was bought by Ernst Benary Seeds, a German seed company, in 2009. Bodgers has always been a wholesale grower.

David Burpee. Photographer unknown; reproduced by permission John Mondry - See more at: https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/the-marigold-of-california/#sthash.7aJgQhU4.dpuf
David Burpee. Photographer unknown; reproduced by permission John Mondry

Burpee Seeds

In 1874, at the age of sixteen, W Atlee Burpee started breeding and selling prize poultry, defying his father, who had wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a physician. It soon became apparent to the young Burpee that he could make more money by selling feed for poultry than by selling the birds themselves. He realized the advantages of growing crops for seed in the Lompoc area and moved there early on, establishing Floradale Farms to test sweet peas in 1909. When he died in 1915, his son David was ready to take over the firm.

Marigolds have been an important part of the Burpee seed list since 1887. In 1905, Burpee offered ‘Lemon Gold’, the first fully double marigold. Marigolds had not yet become popular in the United States, so David set out to encourage their use.

It is hard to know why he chose the marigold as his standard bearer. Many other seedsmen had no opinion of it at all. The breeders at Ferry Morse dismissed it as a “stinky weed,” yet, by sheer force of his personality, Burpee turned it into a national favorite.

One way to build interest in a new flower was to issue a difficult challenge to the public; the other was to start a society of enthusiasts to boost the plant. Burpee did both. The society proved useful but soon ran out of steam. He then put forth a challenge to gardeners to find a completely white marigold, lacking any trace of yellow. The competition was announced in 1954, with a prize of $10,000.

For many years, no one was able to breed a truly snow white marigold. Hopeful contestants offered ivory and cream-colored flowers but nothing that fully met the criteria. Burpee introduced a few of these in the 1960s: ‘Man in the Moon’ (which became ‘Man on the Moon’ after we landed on the moon in 1969), ‘Nearly White’, and ‘Alaska’.

In 1975, Alice Vonk, a widow in Iowa, surprised everyone by producing the first pure white marigold, and received the grand prize for her ‘Snowball’. She took it all in stride; according to her, she had just been dabbling in her garden to pass the time.

Another of Burpee’s promotional campaigns was to have the marigold declared America’s national flower. He roped in powerful, well-known politicians, like Senator Everett Dirksen, but the campaign lost to the rose. During the course of the debate, however, the public bought a great many of Burpee’s marigold seeds.

Before World War II, Burpee had bred many new cultivars by selecting from open-pollinated flowers. In 1937, they released ‘Crown of Gold’, which won an AAS gold medal. In 1939 came the ‘Red and Gold’ marigold, the first interspecific hybrid. These two introductions changed marigold history, as did ‘Nuggets’, the first triploid series, introduced in 1966.

As F1 hybrid breeding became better understood and financially feasible, Burpee introduced the ‘Climax’ series in the late 1950s; these were tall African cultivars with fully double flowers. Burpee called the series ‘Climax’, because it was the culmination of a long period of experimentation. The series was followed by the ‘Gold Coin’ series.

In the roughly seventy years of the All-America Selections trials, there have been forty-eight awards for marigolds and three gold medals. Burpee has won seventeen of the forty-eight awards.

Some customers complained about the strong smell of marigold foliage, so Burpee decided to breed a flower without any smell, ultimately succeeded by using an odorless sport sent from a contact in China. The resulting introduction, a scentless version of ‘Crown of Gold’, did not sell well, demonstrating the frustrating fickleness of the public. The firm managed to recoup its losses by offering both odorous and odorless versions of its marigolds. This work was done at Fordhook Farms in Pennsylvania.

Through the years, Burpee has introduced dozens of marigold cultivars. At present, the Burpee catalog features twenty-three kinds of marigolds, including the first red-flowered cultivar of Tagetes tenuifolia, ‘Cottage Red’.

After 1970, when David Burpee retired, the company was bought and sold several times, but with little success until George Ball Jr purchased the company in 1991. A grandson of the the founder of the family firm (George J Ball, Inc) in the early years of the twentieth century, the younger Ball had a long career in plant breeding, and had worked with Charles Weddle and Claude Hope in Costa Rica to developed new cultivars of Impatiens. Hope’s business became known as the Pan American Seed Company. Under that name, they worked on the marigold in tandem with Burpee and were the joint winners of seventeen AAS awards between 1935 and 1977.

Denholm Seeds
The Denholm story is different and somewhat more recent. The Scotsman David Denholm was well trained in England, where he won the Joseph Banks Medal in London. After immigrating to California, he worked for Morse and Bodger before starting his own company with Harry Buckman, a noted figure in Lompoc, and Ted Holden in 1939. The firm put a lot of effort into the marigold and won seven AAS awards.

According to Glenn Goldsmith, Denholm was a master of visual selection in a large field of open-pollinated blooms. Many of the flower breeding experts mentioned herein worked for Denholm at one time or another.

Goldsmith Seeds
Glenn Goldsmith is a university-trained horticulturist, whose doctoral thesis at UCLA was on the French marigold. He started out by working for Denholm soon after graduating. One of his first responsibilities there was to supervise the crew sent into the fields to “rogue” hybrid marigolds. (Roguing is the removal of any plant that does not conform to the standards required.)

After eight years at Denholm, he became director of research for the Pan American Seed Company. He then decided to go into business for himself and founded his own wholesale seed house in Gilroy, California in 1962. (Burpee bred a cultivar in the 1950s called ‘Goldsmith’ and sold it for many years. It disappeared from their seed list once Glenn began to compete with them.)

The Goldsmiths have introduced many excellent hybrid plants, marigolds among them. They were the first to breed some of the new tall, half-tall, and dwarf marigolds. The ‘Inca’ series, released in 1982 remains popular for its short, sturdy stems and large, uniform flowers.

Their series of ‘Petites’—‘French Petite’, ‘French Janie’, and ‘French Aurora’—resulted from a search for a more freely blooming, earlier, and longer-lasting flower. The ‘Harmony’ cultivar was important, supplying gold and orange hues as well as red and yellow tints. One of the enduring successes of the Goldsmith series is ‘French Janie’, which was named for Glenn’s wife.

Another successful introduction was the prolific dwarf French marigold, ‘Lemon Drop’, which was found in a field of open-pollinated flowers. It was possible to get a repeat flush of bloom in the same season from ‘Lemon Drop’.

AAS prize-winner ‘Spun Gold’ was a lone miniature in a field of three-foot-tall African marigolds. Beginning in 1962, Goldsmith crossed ‘Spun Gold’ with a double-flowered mixture, ‘Crackerjack’, and eventually came up with the ‘Aztec’ series (orange, gold, and yellow). It had taken many generations of breeding and selecting for dwarf determinate growth and large double flowers with crested centers. The series received a patent in 1975.

To give some idea of the size and scope of Goldsmith’s plant breeding program, the firm employed seven plant breeders at one time. Glenn’s sons joined him in the business and took over when he retired. The firm has recently been acquired by the international Syngenta Corporation, but Joel Goldsmith remains in charge.

Individual Breeders

Dr Mathilde Holtrop. Photograph by Wanda Edson, reproduced by permission Mathilde Holtrop - See more at: https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/the-marigold-of-california/#sthash.7aJgQhU4.dpuf
Dr Mathilde Holtrop. Photograph by Wanda Edson, reproduced by permission Mathilde Holtrop

Mathilde Holtrop

Dr Mathilde Holtrop, now retired, worked for Goldsmith seeds for twenty-eight years. She was involved in numerous aspects of the firm’s plant breeding program and required several assistants to carry out all of her projects.

Holtrop was born in Indonesia to Dutch parents. Her family moved back to The Netherlands just before World War II but immigrated to Canada soon after the war ended. She then moved to San Diego and has remained in California ever since. She received a doctorate in plant genetics at UC Davis and began working for Glenn Goldsmith shortly thereafter, just as he was beginning to breed marigolds seriously.

One of her first tasks was to develop a short-stemmed, fully double Tagetes erecta cultivar with a large flower head. This became the successful ‘Inca’ series, but Glenn wanted an even richer double flower. Holtrop crossed an ‘Inca’ seed parent with an F2 derivative of Bodger’s ‘First Lady’ to produce ‘Inca II’.

She also bred a chrysanthemum-flowered marigold called ‘Merrimum’, and an anemone-flowered French marigold, ‘Aurora’. One of her colleagues, Carolyn James, left many lines of experimental Tagetes patula strains when she moved to Guatemala. Holtrop bred the best of these and came up with ‘Janie Gold’, another award-winning introduction.

Much of Holtrop’s work in the 1980s was devoted to perfecting ‘Inca’ seed for machine plugs, the industrial system whereby individual seed containers are each mechanically planted with one seed. This led to a huge expansion in wholesale plant sales, while keeping labor costs down. She has also bred prize-winning cultivars of pelargonium, petunia, and pansy.

David Lemon. Photograph by David Cook; reproduced by permission David Lemon - See more at: https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/the-marigold-of-california/#sthash.7aJgQhU4.dpuf
David Lemon. Photograph by David Cook; reproduced by permission David Lemon

David Lemon

David Lemon has bred exceptional cultivars of numerous annual plants and gives no sign of retiring at any time soon. He inspired my research for this article by sharing the story of British gardener extraordinaire Christopher Lloyd who, at their only meeting, addressed him as “Marigold Man.” Though an apt title, he could just as easily be haled as “Pelargonium Man” or “Sweet Pea Man.”

Born in Dublin, Lemon began his horticultural training at the Dublin Botanical Garden but went to England for an honors diploma at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley. He worked at Watkins and Simpson, a seed company in London, before moving to the United States in 1964. Once in Lompoc, he worked for Burpee, Denholm, Ball, and Bodger at different times, eventually breeding pelargoniums for Oglevee and its successor, Ecke Ranch in Encinitas.

Lemon has received countless awards and prizes for his introductions. Many of Lemon’s awards were at the European trials, called Fleuroselect. He has written important papers on Lobelia, Pelargonium, and Verbena for the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Germplasm Resources Information Network. He devoted himself to the French marigold for many years. His introductions include: ‘Showboat Yellow’ (a triploid), ‘French Honeycomb’, ‘French Boy’, ‘French Gate’, ‘French Bonanza’, ‘French Hero’, ‘French Little Hero’, ‘French Safari’, and ‘French Disco’. None of them were F1 hybrids.

John Mondry. Photographer unknown; reproduced by permission John Mondry

John Mondry worked both for Bodger and Burpee, actually returning to Burpee after retiring from Bodger. He was born in Pennsylvania but lived in Ventura, California for many years. Known as an expert plant breeder, he worked on zinnias as well as marigolds. His creations frequently received awards at the AAS trials. In 1986, Michigan State University awarded him an honorary doctorate for his contributions to horticulture.

Money, or rather its lack, had a profound effect on John Mondry’s career, but, in the end, he overcame this seeming constraint. When he left high school, he began to do manual labor to earn a living. When a junior college opened near his home, Mondry enrolled and remained there for three years. At first, he signed up for a pre-med program but switched to biology and chemistry to become a teacher, as he could not afford to study medicine.

His professor of botany and genetics recognized Mondry’s gifts and found him a scholarship to pursue graduate work. The Burpee firm offered him a fellowship and employed him to breed vegetables between 1943 and 1945, until he joined the US Navy. Burpee took him back after his tour ended, but assigned him to more and more desk work. Miserable and bored, he accepted an offer from Bodgers and moved his family to California to direct their research on annual flowers. The large-scale production and marketing of F1 hybrids, both in vegetables and flowers, led to profound changes in horticultural practice. Flowers had to be stripped of their stamens to avoid self-fertilization and to make sure that the chosen external pollen would be the sole fertilizing agent. The process is much easier when a naturally apetalous, male-sterile, version of the flower is available. That happened in both zinnias and marigolds. Al Condit, a manager at Burpee, noticed two large stands of male-sterile marigolds on the company’s land. Mondry took full advantage of this discovery, developing ‘American Climax’, ‘American Gold Coin’, ‘American Jubilee’, ‘American Galore’, ‘American Space Age’, and ‘American Crush’.

Part of Mondry’s great skill lay in carrying the male-sterile line over the years, making sure it did not revert to the standard flower form. This presents many practical difficulties, as the male-sterile factor is carried in the cytoplasm and requires careful back-breeding to assure a continuation of the line.[3. Janick, Horticultural Science 4th Edition]

Many other men and women have contributed to the development of marigolds in California. Burpee’s Elwood S Pickering introduced ‘American First Lady’, ‘Triploid Nugget’, and ‘Triploid Seven Stars’, and worked on the development of the odorless marigold. Blair Winner introduced the ‘Bonanza’ series and ‘Durango’ at Pan American Seed Company. Darrell Decker, an independent flower breeder in Chula Vista, California, introduced ‘Sparky’, ‘Dolly’, and ‘King Tut’. Yoshiro Arimitsu bred the ‘American Discovery’ and ‘American Voyager’ series while employed at Bodgers. Lydon Drewlow and Ron Schlemmer are still active, and plenty of new marigolds can be expected from them and other California breeders in the years to come.

This article is adapted from a chapter in the author’s forthcoming book Visions of Loveliness: The Work of Forgotten Flower Breeders (in press at the Missouri Botanical Garden Press). She is grateful to the following individuals for their assistance in preparing this manuscript: Bill Borchard, Elizabeth Christensen, Gerald Burke, David Combe, Simon Crawford, Denis Flaschenriem, Glenn Goldsmith, Nona Koivula, Budd LaRue, David Lemon, Myra Manfrina, Dr Jim Nau, Dr Lisa Renken, Dr R K Roy.

Readers can see more detail about marigold production by the seed houses listed in this article at https://horthistoria. com/?p=270.


Adams, Denise Wiles. 2004. Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants, 1640–1940. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.
Burke, Gerald. 2004. “I Knew David Burpee.” The Heirloom Gardener 2 (1): 33–35.
Christensen, Bess Gedney. 2006. Acres of Loveliness: The Flower Seed Industry of the Lompoc Valley. Lompoc, California: Lompoc Botanic and Horticultural Society.
Janick, Jules. 1986. Horticultural Science 4th edition. San Francisco: W H Freeman.
Jekyll, Gertrude. 1916. Annuals and Biennials: The Best Annual and Biennial Plants and Their Uses in the Garden. London: Offices of Country Life.
Kaplan, Lawrence. 1960. “Historical and Ethnobotanical Aspects of Domestication in Tagetes.Economic Botany 14 (3): 200–202.
Kraft, Ken. 1963. Garden To Order: The Story of Mr Burpee’s Seeds and How They Grow. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
Lloyd, Christopher, and Graham Rice. 1991. Garden Flowers From Seed. London: Viking Press.
Meyer, Daniel. 2005. All The Best and Nothing Else: The Story of Ball Horticultural Company. West Chicago, Illinois: Ball Horticultural Company.
Neher, Robert Trostle. 1969. “The Ethnobotany of Tagetes.” Economic Botany 22 (4): 317–325.
Proctor, Rob. 1991. Annuals: Yearly Classics for the Contemporary Garden. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Rice, Graham. 1986. Annuals and Bedding Plants. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.




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