The White Marigold: A Prized Flower For the Ages

The glorious story of marigolds begins in Mexico and Guatemala, where the Aztecs prized them for their medicinal properties and used them in religious ceremonies.

In the 16th century, Spaniards took marigolds to Europe and the seeds quickly spread throughout the continent. They took hold in gardens — and in Spanish churches, where they were favorites for adorning the altar of the Virgin Mary. Thus they became known as “Mary’s Gold” — which became “marigold.”

Marigolds’ family name, Tagetes, comes from the word “Tages,” the Etruscan prophet said to be the child of Genius and the grandson of Jupiter. As the myth goes, this wise child sprang up from freshly plowed soil. 

Marigolds are incredibly easy-going flowers, and they’ve been embraced worldwide for their beauty and usefulness. 

By the time it made its way to Britain in the 1600s, the African marigold, Tagetes erecta, had naturalized along the North African coast; despite its origins in the Americas, this is most likely how the flower got its name. The British also called the short and bushy French marigolds “Rose Of the Indies.”  

The first recorded use of marigolds is in the De La Crus-Badiano Aztec Herbal of 1552. The Herbal records the use of marigolds for treatment of hiccups, being struck by lightning, or “for one who wishes to cross a river or water safely.” 

In the 19th century, American gardens began blooming with marigolds. In his 1851 book, “The Flower Garden,” Joseph Breck praised the French marigold as “one of the old-fashioned flowers,” and described the colors of the African marigold as ranging from a “pale citron yellow to deep orange.”

In Philadelphia, French and African marigolds became a staple of W. Atlee Burpee’s seed offerings after its founding in 1876, but it was his son, David, who championed the flower, making it one of the most popular annuals in American gardens. Where others saw a pedestrian flower, Burpee saw potential.

David Burpee

David Burpee loved flowers, but he adored marigolds. You might even say he was obsessed with them. Following his father’s death in 1915, he took over the company and began emphasizing the potential for hybrids. Beginning in the late 1920s, Burpee trained his sights on breeding new marigold varieties after a root fungus nearly wiped out the sweet pea, then America’s most popular flower. Burpee registered as a lobbyist, and with the help of Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, he campaigned to have the marigold named as America’s official flower. (Alas, Congress chose the rose, in 1985.) He was also a bit of a celebrity.

Burpee’s efforts led to the development of such stunning varieties as “Crown of Gold” marigold in 1937 — bred from an odorless variety imported from China — and “Red and Gold” marigold in 1939. All along, Burpee dreamed of breeding a truly white version of the flower.

Burpee was a man of modern science, but he was also a master of showmanship and marketing. In 1954, he brought his two sides together, launching a contest that offered $10,000 to the first home gardener who could produce “marigolds as big as Burpee’s “Man In the Moon” marigolds and as white as their “Snowstorm’ petunias.”  This was the Holy Grail of marigold breeding. 

Over the next 21 years, thousands of home gardeners answered the challenge, including Alice Vonk of Sully, Iowa. Vonk, the daughter of Dutch immigrants, was a meticulous gardener. She collected rainwater for her flowers, believing it was better for them than tap water. She tied a piece of red yarn around the marigolds with the palest flowers, then let them go to seed. 

Those she saved on a rough wood table spread with newspaper, near a big picture window in the basement. She sent some of the seeds to Burpee’s California farm for testing, and replanted others each year. Burpee’s own plant breeders, of course, were working to create a big, white marigold, too.

Alice Vonk

In 1974, she came close, winning $100 in the contest. Then, in 1975, Burpee declared that the 67 year-old widow had succeeded in breeding a winner, which Burpee marketed the following year as “Burpee’s First White Marigold.” With some of the money, Vonk bought herself a really good Troy Bilt tiller. Well into her 70s, she maintained two gardens — a flower garden behind the ranch house she and her husband built, and a vegetable garden behind their old house, commuting the three blocks between them on a riding lawn mower. Sometimes, she’d tote along milk jugs filled with rainwater to sprinkle on her veggie plants.

“Just like she found a one-of-a-kind flower, she was a one-of-a-kind person,” said her grandson Steve Oswalt. 

Alice Vonk exuded creativity beyond the garden, Oswalt said. She made art and wrote poems and songs. But the garden — and the white marigold — were arguably her finest creations.

There are those who think that it was Burpee’s breeders, not Vonk, who were ultimately responsible for the development of the white marigold. 

Even if that’s true, Oswalt says it wouldn’t have mattered to his grandmother. “As far as she was concerned, she and God were responsible for producing that seed. It was just her and God and the garden,” he said.

Alice Vonk stands below the welcome sign to Sully, Iowa. Photo courtesy of the Vonk family.

Crowdsourcing the elusive white marigold gave the humble flower a big boost. It gave Alice Vonk a place in the annals of botany. And it was also the biggest thing ever to happen in the little town of Sully. For years, a welcome sign at the edge of town proudly declared Sully as “home of Alice Vonk, developer of the white marigold,” featuring Alice Vonk’s hand-drawn picture of the flower. 

Sadly, the sign is long gone, and the story of Vonk and her flower has faded. Now, Oswalt says, “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a white marigold planted in a Sully garden.”

Lucky for us, though, white marigolds still dazzle. There are now several varieties of white marigold, including the beautiful Kilimanjaro. Beginning in the 1990s, this creamy white Tagetes erecta was selected on the slopes of the famous mountain from which it gets its name. The Dutch seed company Hem Zaden works with small, local farmers in Tanzania to raise this variety and is constantly working to improve it.

Welcome this lovely flower into your garden!

Find white marigold seeds here.