Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is one of the world’s most well-known holidays that celebrates the life of lost loved ones. From Nov. 1 through 2, people all around Mexico and other Central and South American countries celebrate life and remember departed loved ones with festivity.
Day of the Dead has many symbolic elements, but it comes as no surprise that flowers have long been a major part of the tradition. Participants choose flowers based on meaning, appearance, or oftentimes both. Whether you’re interested in making your own altar or you simply want to know more about Day of the Dead flowers, this guide will help you better understand the symbolism behind the beauty.
Please note: Motifs and information seen in this piece are inspired by Mexican tradition. Please consider supporting Mexican art and culture through local and national/international non-profits (National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures).
Day of the Dead History
Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a combination of elements of an Aztec festival dedicated to Mictecacihuatl along with influences from Catholic religious practices. Mictecacihuatl is known as the “lady of the dead” — she watches over the dead and is said to swallow stars during the day.
Over the centuries, as the holiday became more intertwined with Catholic traditions, Día de los Muertos has been shortened from a month-long event to a two-day celebration that’s held in Mexico on November 1st (known as All Saints’ Day) and November 2nd (All Souls’ Day). All Saints’ Day is held to celebrate children who have passed away, while All Souls’ Day is dedicated to adults who have passed on.
6 Day of the Dead Flowers
Día de los Muertos flowers are used as decoration for the celebration, from stunning flower crowns to altars to bouquets. Most of the flower types used during the celebration are available during the fall, emit a strong fragrance and have a traditional meaning associated with death.
Check out the six most popular Day of the Dead flowers and the meaning behind each of them below.
1. Marigolds (Cempasuchil)
Marigolds are what many people would consider the most popular and widely used flower during Day of the Dead. They are even nicknamed “flowers of the dead,” as their sweet fragrance is said to attract souls to the altar and help loved ones find their way home. The bright and cheery nature of these orange flowers fit the positive and celebratory vibe of Day of the Dead, which is likely why so many people love incorporating marigolds into their arrangements.
- Meaning: Celebratory; attracts souls back home
- Best for: Altars
- Genus: Tagetes
2. Cockscombs (Terciopelo Rojo)
With uniquely shaped blooms that have a strong resemblance to the comb on a rooster, this Day of the Dead flower comes in a wide variety of colors including white, yellow, orange, purple and red. Cockscomb flowers are commonly used during Day of the Dead to decorate altars and tombstones due to their long-lasting nature. In Catholicism, red cockscomb flowers symbolize the blood of Christ and resurrection from the dead.
- Meaning: The blood of Christ; resurrection from the dead
- Best for: Altars or tombstones
- Genus: Celosia cristata
3. Chrysanthemums (Crisantemo Blanco)
These bright fall flowers are a popular choice for Día de los Muertos celebrations, but can also be found in similar traditions around the world. For example, people in France and Spain bring chrysanthemums as gifts for the dead during All Souls Day, celebrated on Nov. 2. White flowers are favored during these celebrations because they’re said to symbolize beauty, peace and sympathy. You can find white mums on altars, gravesites and flower crowns during Day of the Dead.
- Meaning: Beauty, peace, sympathy
- Best for: Altars, gravesites, flower crowns
- Genus: Chrysanthemum morifolium
4. Gladioli (Gladiolas)
Also known as the sword lily, these tall and unique flowers are often used in funeral arrangements during Day of the Dead. Gladioli come in a wide variety of colors and can sometimes grow up to three feet tall. In many Hispanic cultures, the August birth flower represents remembrance and faithfulness and is a symbol to honor those you loved.
- Meaning: Remembrance, faithfulness
- Best for: Funeral arrangements
- Genus: Gladiolus
5. White Hoary Stocks (Alheli Blanco)
Though this flower can be found in shades of purple, red and blue, participants during Día de los Muertos prefer to use white, as it symbolizes simplicity and innocence. This is why white hoary stocks are commonly used for altars remembering lost children or those who died too young. These blooms are even more appealing during Day of the Dead due to their sweet and delicate fragrance.
- Meaning: Simplicity, innocence, beauty
- Best for: Altars honoring lost children
- Genus: Matthiola incana
6. Baby’s Breath (Nube)
These tiny white flowers are usually used as fillers for arrangements and make great accents for decor. During Day of the Dead, many participants like to use baby’s breath flowers in crowns, altars and gravesites, as they add a beautiful and delicate touch to any arrangement. White is also the preferred floral color during the holiday, which makes baby’s breath a perfect addition.
- Meaning: Purity, love, innocence
- Best for: Flower crowns, altars, gravesites
- Genus: Gypsophila elegans
Other Popular Day of the Dead Symbols
It may come as a surprise, but flowers aren’t the only Day of the Dead symbol out there! Though they do play a big part, there are other special elements that make this holiday a true celebration.
Check them out below:
- Skulls and skeletons: Also known as “calaveras” in Spanish, these special symbols are what everyone thinks of when they hear about Day of the Dead. Participants can paint these skulls, make sweet treats or wear them as masks to celebrate.
- Altar: During Day of the Dead, you may find many homes, cities and schools with their own altars, or “ofrendas,” to honor the spirits of children and adults. Each altar is filled with flowers, photos and other offerings.
- La Calavera Catrina: You may have seen an image of a skeleton dressed in elegant women’s clothing floating around the internet. This widely famous image, called “La Calavera Catrina,” was created by artist José Guadalupe Posada. Catrina is a major Day of the Dead symbol and can be found in just about every aspect of the celebration.
- Paper Banners: Another unique symbol to Day of the Dead are “papel picados,” or paper banners. These colorful crafts are carefully perforated to show off stunning designs and are hung up around marketplaces, homes and local businesses. These paper decorations aren’t just for show, as they also represent the loss of loved ones and serve as a reminder of the fragility of life.
Whether you decide to use marigolds or chrysanthemums to celebrate the lives of your lost loved ones, it goes without saying that Día de los Muertos is a special tradition for all of us to honor. Choose your favorite Day of the Dead flowers and create a special arrangement on Nov. 1 this year.