A staple of Día de Muertos celebrations everywhere is the cempasúchil flower, more popularly known as the marigold. They’re delicately threaded to create garlands displayed in doorways, arranged in bouquets on ofrendas, or scattered in a path to attract the souls of deceased loved ones back to earth.

The history behind the golden flower stretches all the way back to the 1500s, along with a romantic Aztec legend.

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Here’s everything to know about the botanical symbol of life and death, and how it’s used to eternally honor our loved ones on Día de Muertos.

Why is cempasúchil the flower of the dead?

According to Aztec legend, the Día de Muertos flower came to be thanks to two lovestruck adolescents, Xóchitl and Huitzilin.

Their favorite thing to do was hike up to the mountaintops to offer flowers to Tonatiuh, the sun god. Tonatiuh would shine his rays every time, and one day, the lovers promised that their love would last forever.

Later, Huitzilin went to fight in a war that had broken out over their land, but he didn’t return. His death broke Xóchitl’s heart so much that she returned to Tonatiuh for a final time to find a way to be freed from her suffering. She wanted the sun god to bring them together again, so Tonatiuh shone one of his rays at her cheek. 

Like magic, Xóchitl turned into the marigold flower, and then a hummingbird carefully touched its center with its beak. It was Huitzilin who was reborn as the bird. The marigold opened up to reveal its 20 petals and unique aroma. It is said that Xóchitl and Huitzilin would be together as long as the cempasúchil flowers and hummingbirds exist on earth. 

Are marigolds and cempasúchil the same?

The cempasúchil is native to the Aztecs, with the name coming from the Nahuatl language. The words “cempoa,” meaning twenty, and “xóchitl,” meaning flower, were combined to reference the plant’s petals.

National Geographic states that marigolds have been significant since pre-Columbian times, because the Nahua believed that the flower was a gift from the sun god. For this reason, they used the cempasúchil in offerings to their deceased loved ones.

The Cempasúchil Flower Went From Being a Hiccups Cure To A Día de Muertos Staple
USED WITH PERMISSION FROM Gerardo Martin Fernandez Vallejo on Unsplash

Where are cempasúchil flowers found?

In the 1500s, marigold seeds were said to be stolen by Spanish explorers, who grew them in monastery gardens. From there, seeds were transported to France and Northern Africa before making their way back to North America. They have since been bred into different colors, odorless varieties, and more. Today, there are at least 35 species in Mexico, out of the 58 in America.

Cempasúchil flowers only bloom after the rainy season in Mexico ends in September, mainly on mountaintops. The states with the most ideal climate and soil conditions for the flower in the country are Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Michoacán, and the State of Mexico.

What are medicinal uses for marigold?

Aside from being a beautiful flower, the flor de muerto is used to dye textiles varying shades of yellow. It can also be used to make insecticides that are good for warding off pests in vegetable gardens.

Marigolds have also been used as medicine, mostly for gastrointestinal illnesses like indigestion, vomiting, and diarrhea. People would ingest the flowers by eating or drinking them in a tea.

In fact, a record from the 16th century — the De La Cruz-Badiano Aztec Herbal of 1552 — revealed that the marigold was used to cure hiccups, treat people that were struck by lightning, and to wish to cross bodies of water safely.

What does the cempasúchil flower represent?

Today, families decorate their homes and altars for Día de Muertos with the iconic flower in abundance. Its eye-catching yellow and orange colors and strong fragrance draw spirits home to their families, even from the afterlife.

For the November 1 celebration, the flor de muerto is traditionally displayed on an ofrenda if families aren’t able to visit the resting place. They’re accompanied by photos of loved ones who have passed, candles, water, pan de muerto, sugar skulls and more. 

Outdoors, petals are usually scattered on a path on the ground to safely guide the loved ones home. Cempasúchil flowers are also used to decorate doorways threaded in garlands or arranged in round wreaths. 

If they’re able, families will spend days tending to gravesites in preparation. The marigold flowers are placed on graves, and often tidied in the shape of a cross to cleanse the incoming souls. At the end of the celebrations, the marigolds guide the deceased back to the afterlife until the next year.