Southern Oregon flower farmer Elizabeth Bretko puts her heart and hands into nurturing marigolds that are displayed at life’s happiest and saddest moments.
Recently, she sent a box of the aromatic flowers to Las Vegas for a memorial. She provided fresh marigold garlands for a bride and groom to exchange at their wedding near Corvallis, where many of the guests were from India. And she’s filling orders for marigolds to decorate for Diwali, the days-long festival of lights that begins Monday, and Día de los Muertos holidays next month.
As Oregon’s flower-growing season is coming to a close, Bretko is busier than ever, harvesting marigolds for fall celebrations in which the bright yellow-, tangerine orange- and golden orange-colored blooms hold deep meaning.
Since ancient times, marigolds have been used to represent the power of the sun and the most tender of human feelings. Bretko’s small business, Uber Herbal, puts her in direct contact with each buyer seeking a meaningful addition to a life-changing moment.
“The best part of my work is knowing where the flowers are going,” Bretko said, standing in a field of marigolds in the city of Rogue River. Bees are bouncing off blossoms and her daughter, Be, 13, tries to catch butterflies as they fly by.
Bretko’s voice is soft as she talks about a call requesting marigolds for a memorial. “It’s an honor to be a part of people’s ceremonies on the hardest days in their life and the most beautiful days in their life.”
Gardeners appreciate marigolds for their hardiness — they protect vulnerable plants from disease and pests — as well as their talent to lure in pollinators. They are helpful companion plants, say OSU Extension Service Master Gardeners.
The steady and predicable annual, which grows in every U.S. state, can endure stingy soils and cruel temperatures.
But people who cherish the vivid color waves, offered in spring, summer and fall, and the way in which the world has embraced the flower into its deepest rites-of-passage, swaddle marigolds in emotion.
Mandy Valencia of Medford is a third-generation Mexican American who sees Día de los Muertos, the tradition of honoring children on Nov. 1 who have died and adults on Nov. 2, as the time “when the veils between our worlds is very thin.”
She prepares an ofrenda, an offering on a home altar, with marigolds (“flor de muerto”) around family portraits and favorite foods. “For my grandma, that means a Rocky Road candy bar, which is hard to find these days,” she said.
She explains that marigolds’ vibrant colors and strong scent guide relatives to their ofrenda.
Years ago, when she was celebrating the Day of the Dead with a group of friends, she felt as if she bumped into someone. “But when I looked behind me, no one was there,” she said.
Later, when she was at her car, loading her son into his car seat, she felt someone push her from behind. When she turned, again, no one was there.
“That night, my mom said my grandmother had visited her in her dreams,” said Valencia. “She said to tell me she was the one pushing me. Her message to me was to keep going.”
A week later, Valencia was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I knew in that moment why my grandmother had this important message for me,” she said. “And it was the knowledge that she was watching me and looking over me that got me through the difficult cancer treatments.”
Marigolds at an Oregon wedding
Amrita Sehgal and Vishesh Khanna were married outside Corvallis, at the Inn at Diamond Woods in Monroe, on Sept. 3. Their ceremony was a blend of traditions from India, where Khanna was born, and the U.S., where both Sehgal and Khanna were raised.
“Marigolds were part of our wedding vision from the beginning,” said Sehgal. “They are a visual representation of our culture, symbolizing sun, brightness and positive energy, and are a huge part of every celebration, whether it’s a new baby or new house, even politics.”
When the couple requested marigolds from their wedding florist, DelJean Benton of Flowers & Thyme in Springfield, Benton called her regular fresh flower supplier, a wholesaler with 21 locations in the U.S, including a warehouse in Portland.
She was told: They didn’t have marigolds.
Her wide internet search to find fresh marigold garlands — not dried, paper or plastic ones — led her back to Oregon, and to Elizabeth Bretko’s organic marigold field. Bretko has been selling fresh marigold garlands that she strings by hand for 10 years.
“I’m so glad I found her,” said Benton. “The marigolds were amazing and so beautiful. You can tell she cares. She included extra touches, like a bag of loose flower heads and marigold confetti that we could place around. It was a sweet touch.”
During the wedding ceremony, the bride presented her garland to her partner, showing her acceptance of the marriage proposal, and the groom offered his garland to her.
Guests saw four-foot-long garlands draped over wine barrels at the reception, and watched the newlyweds descend stairs dusted with eco-friendly marigold confetti as they were introduced as husband and wife.
The couple’s tiered wedding cake had fresh orange marigolds and petals on top of the smooth, white fondant icing, and an orange-icing depiction of the Golden Gate bridge, which is near their new home on the San Francisco Peninsula.
Cody and Bailey Valenzuela of C&B Photo in Springfield have been capturing weddings full-time for five years. Yet, until they worked Sehgal and Khanna’s ceremony, they had never seen marigolds take center stage.
“That flower brought brightness and light to a day filled with love and family gathering from all over the world,” said Cody Valenzuela.
He says he’ll never ignore a marigold again.
Masala chai got Bretko hooked on marigolds a decade ago. She was selling Heartsong Chai, a cardamom-rich, spicy tea that originated in India. She also wanted to grow flowers, but not compete with Oregon’s flower farmers who already face steep competition from importers.
Bretko landed on the marigold. “I just love that the flowers are bright and long-lasting, and the infinite layers of petals amaze me,” she said. “They transcend culture and location. India, Bali, Thailand, Mexico are distinct cultures with a common thread: the marigold.”
She plants seeds in the ground by hand, and later snaps the blooms off the stems by hand, placing them in her woven basket. She’s so fast harvesting the tops, she makes a steady popping sound as she moves down the row.
She sells chai, farm-direct fresh marigold garlands and confetti made of dried marigold petals through her online Uber Herbal store and Etsy shop, and in person on Saturdays at both the Grants Pass Growers Market and the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market in downtown Ashland.
At the Grants Pass market, her pop-up shop is a dolled-up vintage horse trailer with a walk-up window. But Bretko is seldom inside.
She prefers to be out in front, talking to regular customers and meeting new people. On a recent Saturday, she put a fresh garland over the head of Augustine White of Cave Junction. Nesting around his neck, the garland’s autumnal colors matched his ochre orange knit cap and auburn beard and braids.
He smiled. She told him the garland would eventually dry out and he could untie the end of the wire strand and use the loops on each end to hang the garland on a wall. When he’s ready, he can bury the garland in the ground and a line of marigolds will appear. He smiled again.
Marigolds make it easy to have them around.
— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072
firstname.lastname@example.org | @janeteastman
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