Day of the Dead Flowers (Día de los Muertos) and Their Symbolic Meanings

Every fall, Día de los Muertos offers a chance for families to remember their loved ones. Though this Latin American holiday’s name — which translates in English to Day of the Dead — may sound morbid, it’s actually a joyful celebration of life. Día de los Muertos coincides with two Catholic observances, All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2), and incorporates elements of both. But Day of the Dead is a special holiday all its own, celebrated with delicious foods, decorative sugar skulls, and colorful flowers. Read on to learn more about Day of the Dead and the flowers that make it special.

Ultimate Guide to Day of the Dead Flowers (D¡a de los Muertos)
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    History & Origins of Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos)

    Burial site covered in orange flowers as part of the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) celebrations

    Día de los Muertos has long roots that stretch back thousands of years to the Aztec Empire, long before Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World. Though it historically stems from Mexico, today, the Day of the Dead is celebrated across many Latin American countries, in the U.S., and other parts of the world.

    At its heart, the Day of the Dead is a commemoration of loved ones who have passed. It’s a day for family to come together and think of those who are no longer with us and to honor their memories.

    A Celebration of Family and Loved Ones

    People dressed in costumes depicting skeletons for Day of the Dead celebrations

    One thing the Day of the Dead isn’t? Somber and sad. Above all else, this two-day period is a celebration of life and love.

    Día de los Muertos falls on the same days as two days that have significance in the Catholic faith: Día de Todos los Santos, or All Saint’s Day, and Día de last Animas, or All Soul’s Day. On these two nights, November 1 and 2, it’s believed that the souls of the dead can come back and visit the living.

    The celebrations on these two days are designed to help guide these departed souls back to their families, so they can be reunited once more. It’s truly a cause for celebration!

    Many Día de los Muertos celebrations are meant to provide the deceased with the experiences they had while alive. That means lots of good food, lively music, favorite objects, photographs, and, of course, beautiful flowers.

    But how did the connection between the flowers and the Day of the Dead come to exist?

    A Rich History

    Memorial celebrations featuring potted orange marigold flowers and orange petals for Day of the Dead celebrations

    Dia de los Muertos started in a region known as Mesoamerica. Though it’s more a cultural designation than a geographic one, this area includes what is today the southwestern U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize.

    From the early 14th to 16th centuries, the Aztec Empire ruled the region. The concept of death was complex for the Aztecs, with an afterlife that involved many layers and stages. Many of these were closely tied to the land, the seasons, and agriculture, including fruits and flowers.

    Multiple festivals throughout the year, known as veintena, celebrated the seasonal cycles and agricultural harvests. These festivals also tied in the duality of life and death, planting the seeds for the Day of the Dead.

    The Spanish conquistadors brought their own religion and traditions with them. Over time, as the New World was taken over by the colonizers, Catholic cosmology merged with the Aztec seasonal festivals.

    Delicious Food and Beautiful Blossoms

    Some of the traditional Aztec elements remain, such as the emphasis on the harvest, fruits, and flowers. Ofrenda, or offerings, to the dead, often include foods and blossoms. The goal is to provide items that will attract and please the deceased.

    Ofrendas aren’t made lightly. Each offering has significance, and that includes flowers. Let’s look at the symbolism and meaning behind the flowers used in Day of the Dead celebrations.

    Day of the Dead Flowers and Their Symbolic Meaning


    A tomb is covered in orange marigold flower heads

    To the Aztecs, the cempasúchil or marigold (Tagetes erecta) played a key role in remembering the dead.

    T. erecta are native to Central America. Here, they bloom at the end of the monsoon season. The Aztecs grew cempasúchil in their chinampas, or floating gardens, and associated them with the sun and the earth.

    The hue and fragrance of the orange, yellow and golden blossoms were thought to help the dead find their homes and their altars. Today, cempasúchil is still used in ofrendas on the Day of the Dead. The blossoms are used to make a bright path to light the way with color and scent.

    Also known as flor de muerto, marigolds are strongly associated with Día de los Muertos. Often, they’re arranged in a cross shape, placed in vases on an altar, or used to line pathways, creating trails of fragrance and color.

    For more, see our in-depth guide to marigold flower meaning.


    Colorful Cockscomb flowers in bloom

    The bright red blossoms of the Terciopelo rojo, or cockscomb, are often found in ofrendas. These unusually shaped blossoms (that resemble a rooster’s comb) grow in a range of colors, but the red flowers are the most connected to Día de los Muertas.

    Celosia cristata cut flowers last a long time, so they stay fresh when used on altars. Plus, the deep red variety symbolizes the blood of Christ, which signifies resurrection from the dead. These bright flowers are often used with marigolds to create a vibrant, colorful display.

    For more, see our in-depth guide to celosia flower meaning.


    Colorful Gladioli flowers in bloom

    Gladioli or sword lilies symbolize remembrance and faithfulness, making them a natural choice for Day of the Dead celebrations. These tall, elegant flowers grow in a range of colors.

    Gladioli are found lying on grave sites or altars. They may be combined with other traditional Día de los Muertos flowers in bouquets or used as the centerpiece for arrangements.

    White Hoary Stock

    White Hoary Stock flowers in bloom

    Alheli Blanco — also known (somewhat unfortunately) as white hoary stock or Matthiola incana — is a popular floral choice for Day of the Dead. This flower signifies the remembrance of lost children. It’s often laid on altars or grave sites.

    The white flowers have a sweet, pleasant fragrance. They’re especially lovely when contrasted with golden marigolds, red cockscomb, and white mums.

    Baby’s Breath

    Soft white Baby's Breath flowers in bloom

    Baby’s breath (Gypsophila murals) is another commonly used flower for Day of the Dead. Known as Nube, they are often added to arrangements at grave sites and on altars.

    These tiny white flowers symbolize purity, innocence, and love. Baby’s breath is a popular choice in the floral crowns worn at Day of the Dead celebrations.

    For more, see our in-depth guide to baby’s breath flower meaning.


    Orange and red blooming Chrysanthemum flowers

    Mums or Chrysanthemum morifolium are popular flowers used in Día de Los Muertos celebrations. Crisantemo Blanco is traditionally used in Spain and France on All Soul’s Day. Mums are an important part of the Day of the Dead in Latin America and the U.S., too.

    White mums are the flower of choice. They symbolize beauty, peace, and sympathy. Chrysanthemums are often used on altars and in flower crowns.

    For more, see our in-depth guide to chrysanthemum flower meaning.

    How Do Flowers Feature During Día de los Muertos?


    Altars filled with flowers as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations

    Flowers play a number of key roles during Día de los Muertos celebrations. Among the most visible are their use as ofrendas. Blossoms, such as marigolds, mums, and gladioli, are placed on altars and offered up as a gift to the dead.

    Flowers are also used to decorate altars with color and fragrance. This is thought to appeal to the dead, making them want to come back to the land of the living,  at least for the two nights of the festival.

    Costumes and Flower Crowns

    A person in full costume for Day of the Dead celebrations with floral crown with large pink and orange flowers

    Flowers are used in costumes for Day of the Dead. The flower crown is an important element of the festivities. These crowns are often woven together using marigolds, white mum, and white baby’s breath. Red cockscomb may be added for an additional dash of bright color.

    In Art and Literature

    Artists have found much inspiration in Day of the Dead celebrations, and flowers form an important part of the festivities. Take, for instance, the tradition of calevaras literarias.

    In English, this translates into “skull literature.” Calevaras literais are a form of poetry popular in Mexico; it’s frequently used in Day of the Dead celebrations. Often, the poems are funny, irreverent, or satirical and tend to poke fun at specific qualities of the deceased (or living).

    Poems don’t have to be joking, however, and many incorporate flower imagery. For example, consider this verse written in honor of loved ones passed on:

    Así que los festejamos (So we celebrate them)

    Con grandes piezas de pan, (With large pieces of bread,)

    Colocados en altares, (Placed on altars)

    Con flores velas, mezcal! (With flowers candles, mezcal!).”

    Of course, artists find inspiration in the Day of the Dead, too. José Guadalupe Posada’s iconic 19th-century works often feature flowers, such as “La Calavera Catrina.” The works of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and other artists are rife with death and flower imagery.

    The Final Word 

    Día de los Muertos may be centered around death, but it’s anything but somber. This colorful two-day festival is a celebration of loved ones, all with a focus on remembering and honoring those who have passed. Flowers — such as marigolds, mums, gladioli, baby’s breath, cockscomb, and white hoary stock — play a key role in this joyful celebration.

    Contributing Editor | | Full Bio

    Linsay is an American copywriter based in the Pacific Northwest with a background in academic writing and research. Linsay holds Master's degree in both Anthropology and Library and Information Sciences and has written for numerous national and international publications including USA Today, SFGATE, Hunker, and The Bump across an array of topics in the gardening, green living, and travel sectors. When she's not writing, you'll usually find Linsay reading, kayaking, sailing, snowboarding, or working in her garden.

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