1. When everything else is wilting on a hot summer day, this hardy, brilliant flower is in its glory. Its name refers to the Virgin Mary, as its long-lasting blooms were often used to decorate church altars. In Mexico, they are grown by the acre and their petals sold as chicken feed to enhance the color of egg yolks and flesh.
Everett Dirksen, former United States senator from Illinois, tried for years to have this blossom named our national flower, emphasizing its rugged, robust features and pest resistance. It lost out to the rose, but it's a favorite patio plant from Maine to California.
2. Today, the greatest demand for this gentle nodding flower is not for its bright, bowl-shaped blossom but for its seeds, which are tasty in breads, rolls, bagels, and cakes.
The flower's wave of orange-red faces also lit up the battlefields in Belgium and France after World War I (churned-up earth caused the dormant, light-sensitive seeds to sprout).
To this day, artificial red flowers are distributed around Veterans Day. You can read all about them in John McCrae's 1915 poem 'In Flanders Fields.'
3. In ancient Rome, this flower's flat seeds were used in the theater as stage money, and were called 'penny beans.' In Texas, the tall stalks of pea-like flowers are 'blue bonnets.' So prolific are they, particularly in June, that a hillside awash with them caused Henry David Thoreau to exclaim, 'The earth is blued.'
4. Some of these towering summer garden plants have grown as tall as 40 feet. Their genus name, 'helios,' is Greek for 'sun' because the flower heads turn toward the sun's rays.
American pioneer families planted these all-purpose high-risers close to the house. New growth was eaten like asparagus, the seeds were used in baking (if the birds didn't get them first). Leaves and stalks were used as animal fodder, and fibers from the stalks were woven into cloth.
Sources: '100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names,' by Diana Wells; 'Flowers and Their Histories,' by Alice Coats; 'A Garden of Words,' by Martha Barnette; 'Garden Flower Folklore,' by Laura Martin; 'Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose?' by Mary Durant; 'The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins,' by Robert Hendrickson.
(1) marigold (after 'Mary's gold'); (2) poppy; (3) lupine; (4) sunflower.