By Steve Stroupe
What does a beautiful, water-loving flowering plant in the Buttercup family have in common with a 1958 horror movie starring Steve McQueen and one of Shakespeare’s plays? Stay tuned…
Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) is one of the most cheerful native plants to adorn the edges of a pond or to grace rock crevices in or near waterfalls. This wet-footed, rich soil-loving member of the Buttercup family blooms from April to June and possesses the added benefit of flowering in the shade. This versatile plant grows in a pleasing, compact habit while the height ranges from 8” to 24” tall. The leaves are heart-shaped with two lobes, and the delightful yellow flowers which are 1” to 1 ½“ in diameter, are also likely to be the first pond plants to bloom in the Spring.
Marsh Marigold loves any rich soil that’s damp to fully submerged, and will thrive and bloom in part sun to shade, which is always a much appreciated characteristic in the water garden because most flowering plants used in water gardens prefer full sun. Unfortunately, those of us in the Deep South will often have difficulty with this plant which prefers much cooler weather than we can offer. Its southernmost natural range only drops down as far as North Carolina and Tennessee, but by all means experiment growing this aquatic plant. Northernmost ranges are no problem at all, as the Marsh Marigold is cold hardy to USDA Zone 3, which is two zones cold-hardier than me.
In addition to its original configuration, Marsh Marigold is also available in a white form, var. ‘Alba,’ and a double-flowered form, var. ‘Flore Plena’ or ‘Plena.’
Marsh Marigolds are propagated by root division and seed. Divide plants in early Spring before blooming or in the summer when almost dormant. Sow seed as soon as it ripens, being careful not to allow it to dry out.
Our featured plant this month has some interesting facts associated with its name: Its common name, ‘Marigold’ comes from a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon term merso-meargealla which means literally “marsh gold.” This etymological detail was apparently lost on whoever coined the term “Marsh Marigold” which is obviously redundant with the word Marsh added back into the name again. The familiar garden Marigold, [Calendula officinalis] which is completely unrelated to Marsh Marigold and requires well-drained soil, didn’t mind at all however, borrowing its name. ‘Marigold’ has also been associated with the Virgin Mary [Mary Gold] and with Britain’s 16th century monarch, Mary I (Queen Mary).
The botanical name, Caltha palustris, translated from the Latin, is much more precise of course: Caltha= cup [from the Greek kalathos] + palustris=boggy or marshy. “Marsh Cup” or “Cup of the Marsh.”
Marsh Marigold has even been mentioned in classical literature such as Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline ii.3;
Winking Marybuds begin
To open their golden eyes
Other common names for Marsh Marigold include Cowslip, Kingcup and Cowflock. In Great Britain, it is known by a number of common names which may be unfamiliar to American water gardeners, such as Mayflower, May Blobs, Mollyblobs, Pollyblobs, Horse Blob, Water Blobs, Water Bubbles, Gollins and the Publican. The preoccupation with “blobs” is interesting, and is of course the name of the 1958 horror “B” movie classic starring Steve McQueen...The Blob.
The leaves of Mash Marigold are edible, but also poisonous, so please do not eat them as a result of reading this article. The sap contains the toxin protoanemonin, which can cause burning of the throat, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, dizziness, fainting, and convulsions...if not cooked properly. The greens are an excellent culinary complement to fugu [pufferfish] if one is into eating dangerous aquatics.
The burning sensation resulting from eating improperly prepared Marsh Marigold has given the Latvians a girl’s name…believe it or not. The Latvians call Marsh Marigold Gundega, which is also used as a girl’s name symbolizing fire… uguns (fire) and dega (burned).
Caltha palustris is utilized in herbal medicine in both Native American culture and in traditional folk medicine. According to http://www.naturalmedicinalherbs.net/herbs/c/caltha-palustris=marsh-marigold.php , “The whole plant is anodyne, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant and rubefacient. It has been used to remove warts and is also used in the treatment of fits and anaemia. The root is antirheumatic, diaphoretic, emetic and expectorant. A decoction is used in the treatment of colds. A poultice of the boiled and mashed roots has been applied to sores. A tea made from the leaves is diuretic and laxative.” So if you run out of Nyquil and aspirin…
Marsh Marigold is a vastly under-utilized plant in US water gardening generally, and will hopefully become more prevalent as more water gardeners and others become increasingly aware of this beautiful “Yellow Cup of the Marsh” which “winking, begins to open its golden eyes” as one of the earliest harbingers of Spring.
* Steve Stroupe is an aquatic plant nursery owner, and co-author of three books on the care and cultivation of aquatic plants. He lives in rural Alabama along with hundreds of beautiful aquatic plants.
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center: University of Texas at Austin
Connecticut Botanical Society
NCSU Poisonous Plants of North Carolina