6 Popular Day of the Dead Flowers & Their Meanings

Published January 25, 2021
Day of the dead flowers and altar decoraitons

Day of the Dead flowers, such as marigolds, are used as decorations for the celebration. While there are six popular flowers used for the Day of the Dead celebration, the prominent flor de muerto (flower of the dead) is the marigold.

Marigolds Are the Primary Day of the Dead Flowers

You can choose from six Day of the Dead flowers to decorate your altar or the gravesite of your loved ones, and to create a personal flower crown. Marigolds are used as the centerpiece flower for all arrangements. Marigolds are the prominent flower for the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) celebration. You'll want to choose orange and yellow cempasúchil, also spelled cempazúchitl (marigolds).

Marigold flowers

The importance of marigolds in the Day of the Dead is believed to be tied to the long growing season of the flowers. The fragility and impermanence of flowers are a significant symbol of the fragility of human life. The Day of the Dead celebration has roots in the Aztec culture. It is a sacred way to honor the dead. It is a celebration practiced throughout Mexico and Latin America. Over time, the celebration became a mixture of Christianity and Aztec beliefs. The Aztec word for marigold in the Aztec language, Nahuatl, is zempoalxochitl and means twenty (zempoal) and flower (xochitl). The name, twentyflower is believed to be a symbolic reference to the many petals of the marigold.

Day of the Dead altar

The Calendula genus of marigolds is Latin for little clock. It's believed this name refers to how the marigold resembles a clock face and that each person has a certain amount of time allotted for living on Earth.

Christianity and Marigolds

It is often argued that the marigold name comes from the word, Marygolde. This name evolved from stories of people unable to give gold coin prayer offerings to the Virgin Mary, so instead they used marigolds.

Marigold Aztec Legend

The Aztec legend of how the marigold was created centers around two lovers. The man went off to war and was killed. Heartbroken, the woman prayed to the Sun god Tonatiuh to reunite her with her lover. Tonatiuh sent down a gold beam of sunlight and transform the woman into a marigold flower and the fallen warrior into a hummingbird so the two lovers could be together forever. The significance of the marigold within the Aztec culture made it the most likely candidate for the main flower to express that love transcends beyond death.

Sunbeam and marigold flower

Marigold Colors for Day of the Dead

Following the Aztec legend, the gold-orange and yellow marigolds are the favorite choices among those celebrating the Day of the Dead. The bright colors are believed to guide the souls of the departed back to Earth for this one day of participating in food, drink, and celebration with living family members.

Marigolds Guide Spirits Home

The pungent aroma of marigolds is believed to assist in loved ones in finding their way home for the Day of the Dead. However, it is more likely that the strong aroma of marigolds was originally used to mask the smell of recently interred corpses. Traditionally, flowers and the burning incense have been used in church ceremonies as a way to combat burial odors.

More Day of the Dead Flowers

You can also complement marigolds with the following flowers commonly associated with Day of the Dead.

Cockscomb

Cockscomb (Celosia cristata) has the distinctive appearance of a woody stalk and an inflorescence (cluster of flowers) that has a wavy shape similar to a rooster's comb. The flowers are available in yellow, white, purple, orange, and red. As part of the Christian and Aztec melding of the holiday, red is the choice color since it signifies Christ's blood and the resurrection from the dead.

Red cockscomb

Baby's Breath

Baby's Breath (Gypsophila elegans) is a delicate spray of tiny white flowers. The plants have many slender branches with an abundance of tiny white flowers. Florists use baby's breath as a filler and accent design element in a floral arrangement. Baby's breath is used in various Day of the Dead floral arrangements for altars, crowns, and gravesites.

Baby's breath

Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum morifolium) are commonly called mums and are a traditional fall flower, although some varieties bloom in late July. It is a traditional flower in some European countries for gifts on All Souls' Day. It is also a favored flower for Day of the Dead celebrations. White chrysanthemums are the preferred color for altars, gravesites, and flower crowns.

White chrysanthemums

White Hoary Stock

Don't let the unpleasant sounding name of the white hoary stock (Matthiola incana) fool you. It is a lush and gorgeous stalk of white, fluffy, ruffled, double blooms stacked on top of each other like a tower. This flower is available in various colors of blue, red, purple, and white. The desired color for Day of the Dead is white.

Matthiola Incana

Those who have lost a child use the white hoary stock flower as a beautiful remembrance of the innocent, especially for decorating altars. The traditional use of this flower as a memorial to a lost child doesn't mean it is strictly reserved for those mourning the passing of a child, but most traditionalist avoid using it in their decorations if they haven't lost a child.

Gladiolus

The Gladiolus (gladioli, plural) is often called the sword lily. It is part of the iris family and grows to three feet tall. The tall flower spikes support the large line of flower clusters. Gladiolus comes from the Latin name gladius, which means sword. Gladioli are used as flowers that honor those you loved. It is a common showy flower used for funerals.

Gladiolus purple flower

Day of the Dead Flower Crown

Marigolds and chrysanthemums are popular choices for a Day of the Dead crown. Baby's breath is often sprinkled between the larger flowers. Some women choose to include red cockscomb in their floral crown.

Choosing and Using Day of the Dead Flowers

Once you select Day of the Dead Flowers, you can use them to scatter along the ground to create a pathway to your altar. You may also use them to decorate your loved one's gravesite and create a beautiful crown to wear for this special celebration.

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