Dirt 1, Part 2

“…I never understood why the former W. Atlee Burpee Seed Companyand others, back in the post WWII era, were so hot on the trail of the so-called “odorless” marigold.”

Garland Orange
Tagetes erecta Garland Orange with a friendly Harlequin Moth pollinator!

I treasure the smells and sounds of the garden, which carry me back to my very first memories as a child working the dirt. That reminiscence often, but not always, stirs up fond recollection.  But any association of a sweet memory with a parallel dark time can expose or highlight an equal amount of pain.  At age four, the first garden flowers I was taught to recognize by name were the so called “African” (yes, native to the Americas) Marigolds (Tagetes erecta), with their pungent, slightly fruity foliage odor, a reseeding patch was on the north side ofthe foundation of our second Texas home. By age seven, “French” Petite Mixed marigolds (Tagetes patula) the first annual flowers I raised from seed to bloom (I’d had failures or abandonments as early as kindergarten).  And the crisp, soapy-peppery smell of zonal geraniums (Pelargonium x hortulanum) was altogether new to me when I received, that same summer as a birthday gift (thank you, Mom!), several potted specimens among a larger collection of plants. They were grown and sold in clay – was it really that long ago?  Young as I think I am, it amazes me that I’ve been gardening since before the early heyday of that bane of gardeners and recyclers everywhere – Horticultural plastic!  I’m thankful now for the ubiquitous chasing arrows, which were formerly absent from nearly all nursery containers, and authored a magazine feature about a pilot program for Horticultural plastics recycling by nurseries.  If we must use some plastic, an increasing number of pots and trays are now produced using recyclable polyethylene resins.  For this I’m greatly appreciative, though far more work needs to be done to increase the pre-disposal capture.

I digress – this will surely happen again! What gardener can ignore the unmistakable acrid musk of tomato foliage?  I couldn’t even back then. When planted from seed at the same time as those first marigolds, Tiny Tim tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) were the first edibles I’d raised from seed to fruit.  Later that same summer I discovered the skunky tang of Chrysanthemums or “mums” (Chrysanthemum indicum), cuttings of which I stripped from spent crowns discarded to a neighbor’s compost pile.  Those became the first perennial plant cuttings I successfully rooted in water and grew on to bloom.  I had them for years – taking them with me on the next family move.  All of these are the smells of earthly comfort to me:  reassuring, sensual, deeply permeating, and ever-memorable.

So I never understood why the former W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company (after multiple ownership changes now part of the Ball Horticultural companies) and others, back in the post WWII era, were so hot on the trail of the so-called “odorless” marigold.  The most notably available effort of their breeding that still survives to the present seems to be Orange Hawaii, a tall, open pollinated Tagetes erecta selection.  I’ll be sure to rant later about why we ever called this marigold species “African” as it is a native of Mexico and Central America, and why the replacement moniker “American” never seems to have caught on.

Suffice for now that as recently as 1972, Burpee introduced a companion variety to the orange, the again-so-called-odorless Golden Hawaii.  In 1976 the company even received a USDA Plant Variety Protection (PVP) certificate for the golden cultivar, which expired – without fanfare – in 1993.  Thus the quest for odorless marigolds, meaningless to me, somehow continued at least into the 1970’s.  Then why is not Orange Hawaii a regular fixture in the average home garden?

Having grown the orange myself, I can attest that at least to my nose, it is not particularly odorless.  Or if it once was, it is no longer – perhaps though genetic drift (which you’ll read more about soon).  Most importantly for me, the prospect of another border full of these irregular five-foot tall giants is unlikely in any future garden of mine, despite the fact that catalogs and seed packets generally list them at 3 feet.  A few have even grown over my head (I am 5’ 6”) then sagged and toppled after a heavy rain, taking their wood and bamboo stakes down with them.  At my latitude (41.89° north), after a summer’s worth of 15-hour days, even the modern dwarf or compact versions of these “American” type marigolds – such as the recent (2010) All-America Selections winner Moonsong Deep Orange (ancestors of all T. erecta are native to a land of roughly 12-hour-daylight summers) – may find themselves stretching somewhat taller than described in catalogs. Then a few years ago, probably about 2014 or 2015, the Garland series of Tagetes erecta was introduced. And it is a monster, at 5 feet or more – just like its old fashioned predecessors, but with more fully double flowers. And thankfully to me, not odorless!

Tagetes Moonsong Deep Orange
Tagetes erecta Moonsong Deep Orange better fits the “business model” of a large flowered, deep orange, garden marigold.

Garland takes Orange Hawaii a step further in physical refinement, as in Orange Hawaii some flowers are single and daisy-like, some fully double like a carnation and a fair percentage land somewhere in between.  Even if grew to only half its height in my garden, Orange Hawaii simply does not fit the “business model” of how a modern, large flowered bedding marigold should look and behave.  And that’s not merely the professional Horticulturist in me talking – they are simply a pain in the ass to grow – indenturing the (already busy enough) gardener to a summer of staking, tying, grooming and pruning!  So breeders long ago shifted course from perceived “odorless-ness” to garden manageability, plant quality, day length sensitivity and of course – flower quality. And Garland?  The same maintenance pain, the plants are not self-supporting and break easily.  I grew it in 2016, and am unlikely to grow it again.

But there is yet another hidden power in these plants.  For quite some time it had been suspected that Tagetes suppresses various type of root knot Nematodes (microscopic segmented worms) in the soil. These worms are harmful to many plants including commercially important crops and garden plants, such as tomatoes.

But it took much more study to quantify the benefits, the active suppression agent, which Tagetes species were most effective, and under what circumstances.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some sort of miracle drench of an active ingredient, made from the plants – that could render the soil inhospitable to Nematodes and their damage.  But this is not to be. According to scientists at the University of Florida, “Research has shown that the nematicidal compound (alpha-tertheinyl) is only released by active, living marigold roots, because exposure to near-UV light inactivates alpha-tertheinyl when taken out of the soil.”[i]

The good news?  Tagetes patula, the so-called “French” marigold (yes, T. patula is native to the Americas, also) is effective against several common species of Nematodes, and Burpee now offers T. patula Nema-Gone, while Park Seed offers Golden Guardian both sold in large packets for the express purpose of suppression for a problem area. Cultivars marketed for Nematode suppression seem to shift around, and I have seen others – so for the 2019 season they may be the same or different.

Now, back to Tagetes erecta, there’s a hidden power in this one as well! Unlike most of the modern, large flowered yet shorter statured bedding marigolds, Orange Hawaii is open-pollinated – meaning the seed is grown without most breeder intervention allowing bees to do the job accomplished by hand labor on the more refined varieties.  Thus, seed is less expensive both to produce and purchase in bulk. Though this implies sacrifice of flower and plant quality (in other words, refined, predictable doubleness or controlled height) those massive plants from cheaper seed still produce copious flowers, and though irregular in “petal” (ray floret) count, bear plenty of material high in xanthophyll, part of a family of yellow pigments found in many plants, and which deepen the color of egg yolks.

Sometimes, driving breeding goals toward an imaginary market has its off-target outcomes; as with Minoxidil (formerly an antihypertensive which found new use as a hair follicle stimulant), Orange Hawaii – more than a half century after its original introduction as an odorless panacea (for those apparently few people who truly found marigold scent objectionable) – has instead become repurposed as a modern additive to chicken feed!

Until recently Orange Hawaii was grown in large quantity for the commercial feed market by Bodger Seeds, Ltd. of Lompoc, California, but recently many of Bodger’s interests have been acquired by the venerable Ernst Benary Samenzucht GmbH of Germany.  As Benary is most famous for its proprietary lines of annual and perennial flower seed, bred for the uniformity and performance our so-called odorless subject lacks, I’m not sure yet what this means for the future of oversized, irregular, open pollinated, somewhat unpredictable relics like Orange Hawaii. Melissa Schmidt of Benary recently told me,“We purchased all the marigolds but the Tagetes erecta Gold Coin series (Doubloon, Double Eagle, Sovereign) we sold to East West Seeds in Thailand. We still produce and sell the other Tagetes erecta (Discovery & Crush) and [T.] patula series (Little Hero, Hero, Safari, Disco).   I believe all other Bodger genetics were taken over by Hem Genetics out of the Netherlands.”

And true that, I have found a vast number of the Bodger open pollinated genetics including Orange Hawaii are being produced and sold by Hem Zaden BV – the branch of Hem which works specifically with open pollinated cultivars and supplies the packet trade. Hem Zaden BV states on their web timeline, that in “In September 2009, Hem Zaden took over all open-pollinated flower seed varieties and related sales activities from US-based company Bodger Seeds Ltd. This takeover also included the extensive Lathyrus (Sweet Peas) assortment and a number of Bodger-bred varieties”[ii]

Trop. Cherry Rose 08
Tropaeolum (Nasturtium) Dwarf Cherry Rose last grew a clean crop for me in 2008. Will 2018 seed produce rogues?

Another Bodger offering-by-way-of-Hem is nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) Dwarf Cherry Rose (aka Cherry Rose Jewel) a 1930’s intro which also appears to have fallen victim to poor field rogueing in production. In my 2013 garden only a small percentage of Dwarf Cherry Rose seeds (sold also as Cherry Rose and Cherry Rose Jewel) from various branded packets produced flowers in the (fairly unique to nasturtiums, and not genetically dominant) rich cherry color, and almost all were single rather than double, with 5 petals only. The Jewel Mixture – which usually includes Cherry Rose among several other colors – also appears to be falling apart, again throwing a high percentage of vermillion orange singles. Gere Gettles of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds mentioned to me he’d dropped Cherry Rose from his offering having also found that a myriad of other colors grew out from the seeds he was selling. This was not the case 10 years ago when all packets would grow out “true” and I had enormous, breathtakingly beautiful patches of Cherry Rose planted about my yard. So I’m hoping Hem will clean up the issue as Bodger once did in the 1980s, by taking the cultivar off the market until all the blaring oranges and yellows and odd bicolors can be rogued out, the doubleness can be restored and the seed offering cleaned up. I know nasturtiums are a minor crop in terms of dollar value, but they are a sentimental favorite with gardeners, especially those who garden with (or garden as) kids. Who needs more gardeners pondering “what did I do wrong?” when really, it is all in the seed.

Trop. Cherries Jubilee 17
Tropaeolum (Nasturtium) Cherries Jubilee in 2017

Since that time I have grown the much newer Cherries Jubilee sold by Renee’s Garden Seeds. It is uniformly cherry colored and double, though it lacks the tasty nectariferous spur of the older cultivar. Missing the spur, the orientation of the flower goes from facing sideways to facing up – desirable visually, but not from a culinary standpoint, and less fun for kids. I really miss the old Cherry Rose with a “complete” flower! But retail packets of this cultivar hace appeared once again in 2018 – so I will be trialing 3 (presumably seed from the same source) to see if the drift is still an issue.

Trop Dwf Cherry Rose
Back again for 2018, Tropaeolum (Nasturtium) Dwarf Cherry Rose – under each of the 3 previous rotating names. Willl this be the year it grows out clean?

Orange Hawaii and Dwarf Cherry Rose being only two examples, many years of gardening have embedded not only the experiences of smell, sight, sound, taste and touch but also those of success and joy, failure, disappointment – and variance!  I’ve learned where and how to trust and distrust that promise on the back of a seed packet (or the picture on the front, or online) to my own inclination to bite off more than I can chew (or plant).

Whether a purported lack of scent, specific or limited range of height, awesome-and-heretofore-unprecedented flower color, or conversely a “complete mixture of all colors” (you may have grown these yourself – the opposite of the Cherry Rose issue – the mixture of whatever-the-plant where every specimen blooms only in one shade) or some other magically illustrated or worded qualifier; in the disconnect between garden performance and the printed page, there is no greater exercise in variance.  Seeds, bulbs, roots and shoots are not like widgets out of a factory, thus in the garden it sometimes takes more than a single season to find out the true meaning of caveat emptor.  When it comes to the nuances of plant performance vs. Horticultural marketing – the only thing proven to me is that season after season, the garden surprises the gardener, not the other way around.  Today’s “odorless” border giant is, alas, tomorrow’s chicken feed.

[i] Marigolds (Tagetes spp.) for Nematode Management, University of Florida, Publication #ENY-056 (August 2007. Reviewed November 2010, June 2013, and April 2016)  Krueger,R; Dover, K. E.; McSorley, R.;  Wang, K. -H.  https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ng045  Accessed 2018, May 16

[ii]  THE HISTORY OF HEM ZADEN, Hem Zaden BV.  (Publication Date Unknown).  Venhuizen, The Netherlands   http://www.hemzaden.com/page/history Accessed 2013, November 12