A Millionaire, a Missionary, and a Mutant Marigold

May 22, 2015 at 8:58 am 2 comments

When David Burpee took over as president of the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company in 1915 he set out to find a new flower to surpass the popularity of the sweet pea. Always the progressive thinker, Burpee knew the sweet pea craze of the late 1800s was nearing its end and felt it was the perfect time for Burpee & Company to thrill the gardening world with a new “all-American” flower.

Sweet peas. Image © Stanislav Krejčík

Sweet pea blooms. Image © Stanislav Krejčík

The sweet pea had been a favorite among American gardeners for decades, but by the early twentieth century its popularity was waning. Sweet peas were temperamental and difficult to grow. While they looked beautiful in a garden, they were too delicate to use in floral arrangements.

Burpee sought a new flower that would appeal to more gardeners and developed a list of requirements. It needed to be strong and resistant to disease, easy to cultivate, and adaptable to growing conditions throughout the country. In addition, Burpee wanted a flower that had large showy blooms with all the aesthetic appeal of the sweet pea, but none of its less favorable qualities.

It was a tall order, but Burpee felt he found the right flower in the marigold. Marigolds had large, full blooms and long, sturdy stems, making them ideal for cut flower arrangements. They could also be grown throughout the U.S. They seemed perfect except for one flaw: marigold leaves have small sacs containing an oil called terpene which gives the plant a foul odor. The oil protects the plant against natural predators, but also makes it unfavorable among gardeners. Burpee decided rather than giving up on the marigold that he would just ‘fix’ it by getting rid of this unpleasant characteristic.

David Burpee in a field of marigolds. Photo courtesy of Burpee Gardens

David Burpee in a field of marigolds. Photo courtesy of Burpee Gardens

Burpee searched the globe hoping to find a terpene-free marigold variety. By 1931 he had collected hundreds of specimens and seeds. Experts at Burpee’s experimental farms grew thousands of plants from these samples, but met with no success. Every marigold had the odor-causing terpene sacs. All, including Burpee, feared the experiment would never succeed.

Then in late 1933 a letter arrived from Carter Holton, a missionary in China who had seen Burpee’s request for marigold seeds in an American magazine. Holton claimed to have found a completely odorless marigold and offered to send Burpee its seeds for $25. Skeptical, Burpee nonetheless had the requested funds wired to Holton.

Four months later a package of seeds arrived. They were planted at the company’s farm in the spring of 1934. As Burpee watched the plants struggle to grow, he remained doubtful. The Chinese marigolds bloomed late and produced unimpressive flowers. Unconcerned with the bloom, Burpee wanted to know if this variety suffered from the same odiferous curse as other marigolds.

As a test, Burpee fed foliage from the Chinese plants and other marigolds to the barnyard animals at his farm. To his delight they ate the foliage from the Chinese marigold, but ignored the others. Burpee had found his treasure! His horticultural experts immediately began crossing the Chinese marigold with other varieties to develop a plant that was robust and odor-free.

This first generation of marigold hybrids were grown at Burpee’s trial grounds under the protection of armed guards. One of the plants in the trial stood out. By definition a mutant, it bloomed early and produced a large orange flower. Most importantly, its foliage was odorless.

Burpee seed catalog from 1937 featuring the Collarette Marigold. Image from the Henry Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, National Agricultural Library

Burpee seed catalog from 1937 featuring the Collarette Marigold. Image from the Henry Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, National Agricultural Library

Burpee employees collected and planted seeds from this new hybrid. Soon dozens of Burpee’s “gift-from-God” marigolds were growing and replicating the favorable characteristics of their mutant parent. By late 1936 Burpee & Company began selling seeds for this miracle flower named the Collarette Marigold “Crown of Gold” to the public. It was even showcased on the cover of the company’s 1937 seed catalog. Just as Burpee hoped, the introduction of a scentless marigold took the gardening world by storm. The plant was the only flower to receive a gold medal at the All-America trials in 1937.

David Burpee helped create a scentless marigold which quickly became a beloved classic among American gardeners. He didn’t stop there, however. As he hinted to a reporter in 1937, “There might be marigolds in many colors—some day—perhaps!”

– Thomas Hull, Smithsonian Gardens Intern

Entry filed under: Garden History. Tags: , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Terry Letendre  |  May 27, 2015 at 12:21 am

    Does this article suggest that all currently grown marigolds now come without a noxious smell, because any I have grown have an odour I find less than pleasant.
    Love the flowers don’t like the smell.
    Terry

    Reply
    • 2. smithsoniangardens  |  May 27, 2015 at 8:42 am

      Hi Terry,
      Great question! The scentless variety Burpee introduced is just one of the many cultivars of marigolds available. Most modern marigolds do have an odor. We agree that the flowers are lovely despite the smell.

      Reply

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