Plant Magic: Wisdom from the Green World

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Flowers for the Dead

Samhain is a time to remember loves ones who have passed beyond the veil, as well as ancestors and even beloved pets. It is still customary in some cultures to honor the dead with a feast. As in the past, the feast can be a complete meal with an extra place set for those not physically present, or it can be as simple as leaving cakes and wine by the fireside or on the front step.

Flowers for remembrance placed on a gravesite or a home altar is a practice that also continues today. While most flowers are gone from our gardens at this time of year, chrysanthemums and marigolds are at their peak seeming to shine light into the darkness. The common chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium syn. Dendranthema grandiflorum, Anthemis grandiflora) is also known as the “garden mum” or just “mums.” This well-known perennial has dense flower heads that can be white, yellow, orange, or reddish-orange, as well as various shades of purple.

Chrysanthemums were first cultivated in China where they were used as a symbol of marital bliss in art and folklore. Although in Japan the chrysanthemum represented the rising sun and life, but in France, Italy, Spain, and Germany this flower was a symbol of grief used to honor those who had passed. It became known as Fiori dei Morte, “flower of the dead.” Despite this, the Victorians used chrysanthemums as a symbol of cheerfulness and optimism.

While any color of chrysanthemums can be used on the Samhain altar, white flowers are especially apropos as the color of death and bare bones. On the other hand, yellow mums look like little suns and represent solar power and life. On the Samhain altar, these symbolize the hope and optimism of a pleasant afterlife or reincarnation. If you use chrysanthemums on your Samhain altar, leave them in place until November 2nd, as they are also associated with All Soul’s Day.

Throughout the summer and until frost arrives, marigolds brighten gardens and windowsills. There are two types: the African marigold (Tagetes erecta syn. T. major) is also known as the American marigold, Aztec marigold, and big marigold, and the French marigold (T. patula).

The African marigold can reach as tall as four feet. Its large rounded flowers are various shades of yellow, whitish, or orange. The French marigold is a compact plant that grows only six to twelve inches tall. Its flowers can be single or double in varying yellows, oranges, and reds. Although some plants in the genus Calendula are also called marigolds, they can be distinguished from marigolds by their more daisy-like flowers.

Considered the flower of the dead by the Aztecs, marigolds are used on altars for Day of the Dead observances (November 2nd) in present-day Mexico. As a symbol of pain and grief, it was a custom to place marigolds in a vase with roses to symbolize the sweet sorrows of love.

Use marigold flowers on your altar at Samhain or any time a loved one passes as a blessing and offering to the dead. Marigolds also represent comfort and provide supportive energy through the grieving process.

Chrysanthemums and/or marigolds can be placed on the Samhain altar as cut flowers or potted plants. Alternatively, add a cut flower or sprinkle petals on your altar as you speak each name of those you want to honor and remember. Include a piece of chocolate or cookies to symbolize your wish that your loved ones enjoy a sweet passage through the afterlife.


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The author of over a dozen books, Sandra is an explorer of history, myth, and magic. Her writing has been featured in SageWoman, The Magical Times, The Portal, and Circle magazines, Utne Reader and Magical Buffet websites, and various Llewellyn almanacs. Although she is a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, she travels a solitary Goddess-centered path through the Druidic woods. She has lived in New York City, Europe, England, and now Maine where she lives in an 1850s farmhouse surrounded by meadows and woods.  


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