The vast array of garden marigolds traces back to three ancestors: African marigolds, French marigolds, and signet marigolds, all of which originated in the Americas.
In the 16th century, the Spanish took seeds of Tagetes erecta to Africa, where it naturalized so quickly that botanists thought it must have been native there. When T. erecta finally reached England, the Brits named it African marigold. The name still sticks―especially in the craws of growers who would like to see it renamed American marigold. These 1- to 3-foot-tall plants do well in heat and produce huge flowers.
OUR FAVORITES: 'French Vanilla' and 'Snowball' are creamy white 2-footers. Inca mix and 'Perfection', both with gold, orange, and yellow flowers, are excellent midsize varieties. 'First Lady' (to 20 in.) has yellow flowers. 'Deep Orange Lady' (to 20 in.) blooms in orange. Plants of Sugar and Spice mix bear 31/2-inch flowers of orange, yellow, and white on 20-inch-tall stems.
French marigold (T. patula) came to England via France, so it, too, wound up with a logical but inaccurate moniker. These marigolds are shorter and more refined, usually staying below 1 foot tall.
OUR FAVORITES: Disco mix has single 21/4-inch flowers of clear yellow, orange, or red on compact 10-inch plants. 'Gypsy Sunshine' (frilly butter yellow blooms) and 'Honeycomb' (frilly reddish petals edged with gold) are floriferous 6- to 10-inch-tall plants. 'Jaguar' bears single golden yellow flowers dabbed with maroon spots over neat, mounding 10-inch plants. 'Mr. Majestic' produces single bright yellow blooms with mahogany stripes on a 1- to 2-foot plant. The single flowers of 'Striped Marvel' (2 ft.) are striped red and gold like a pinwheel.
Signet marigolds (T. tenuifolia) produce many yellow flowers on 8- to 16-inch plants with fine foliage.
OUR FAVORITES: 'Lemon Gem' and 'Golden Gem' both have dainty single flowers on 8-inch plants. Starfire mix has miniature single flowers in shades of red to gold and reaches 12 to 14 inches in height.