Family grows ‘flowers of the dead’ to help Minnesota honor Día de los Muertos

A family poses for a portrait
Rodrigo Cala, 47, owner of Cala Farm (upper right), poses with his children Diane Cala (top), 19, Eduardo Cala (bottom), 20, for a portrait in their greenhouse at Cala Farm on Sept. 21.
Caroline Yang for MPR news

As you enter the greenhouse at Cala Farm, the scent of cempasuchil hits you.

A handful of the 1,000 potted plants already have flowers. But by mid-October the 24-inch-tall plants will be in full bloom, sprouting flowers in orange, white, yellow and even a combined red and orange blossom.

Cempasuchil, or marigolds, are the traditional flower that adorn altars on Día de los Muertos, on Nov. 1 and 2.  And these plants will adorn altars in homes, businesses and even at the state capital in St. Paul.

It’s a late September day. And there’s a chill in the air. Rodrigo Cala, who along with his family own Cala Farm, stands in the green house among the plants. 

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

He began growing cempasuchil three years ago. That first year, he had 200 plants.

“That first year was to test the waters. To see if it would be accepted by the community and if it was feasible to grow marigolds here,” Cala said.

Owner of Cala Farm, holds a couple of Cempasuchil
Rodrigo Cala, 47, owner of Cala Farm, holds a couple of Cempasuchil, or Mexican marigolds, in their prime at his greenhouse in Osceola, Wis., on Sept. 21.
Caroline Yang for MPR news

The idea to grow cempasuchil wasn’t his, Cala said. It was another farmer, Elizabeth Montesinos. Currently they are the only two who raise cempasuchil.

Cala first came to Minnesota in 1998. Back in his hometown in Mexico, Día de los Muertos is always celebrated.

“I’m from a town called San Andres Mixquic, where Día de los Muertos is a very, very important festival,” he said.

Día de los Muertos is when the dead come back to visit and celebrate with the living. Cempasuchil are known as the flower of the dead, and are essential on any ofrenda — or altar. Their overpowering, musky scent helps the souls of loved ones find their way home.

But finding the bright orange flowers in late October in Minnesota was extremely difficult, if not impossible. 

Growing cempasuchil is not about selling the flowers, he said. He grows them to keep a cultural tradition alive.

“But the most important vision is that our traditions are passed onto the next generation,” Cala said.

A single terciopelo rojo flower
A single terciopelo rojo flower, grown at a Cala Farm greenhouse in Osceola, Wis., on Sept. 21.
Caroline Yang for MPR news

Cala has two greenhouses. One on his farm in Turtle Lake, Wis. and another in Osceola, Wis. that he’s been given permission to use. The cempasuchil at the Osceola greenhouse are planted directly in the soil. 

The flowers here will be cut and made into bundles. The loose flowers are used closer to Nov. 1, Cala said.  

“People put the petals at the entrance of the home, like a path, so that departed loved ones can arrive at the altar or the house they are going to visit,” he said.

Many people know that he sells cempasuchil and put their orders in ahead of time via Facebook. Beginning Oct. 15, he’ll take the plants to the Latino Economic Development Center office where people will pick them up. And he usually has a few extra to sell on site, he said.

Cala is also growing another flower alongside the cempasuchil.

This year he’s growing terciopelo. In Mexico, this reddish-violet flower is also placed on altars.

Terciopelo, or celosia, can be found here, he said.

“But the variety is very small. We found a seed that’ll produce a bigger flower,” Cala said.

They’ve been doing research to see what people are looking for. And there are three or four flowers that are used for Día de los Muertos.

There’s also a white flower called nube. He says he already has the seeds but is waiting until next year to grow it.

Owner of Cala Farm demonstrates how large a terciopelo flower can grow
Rodrigo Cala, 47, owner of Cala Farm in Turtle Lake and Osceola, Wis., demonstrates how large a terciopelo flower can grow at its peak at his green house in Osceola, Wis. on Sept. 21.
Caroline Yang for MPR news

Growing cempasuchil takes a lot of work, he said. From finding the seeds, to testing the soil and monitoring the water to keeping the plants warm. But the biggest challenge is the weather, Cala said.

“In just one night, everything can die. The temperatures can drop below zero. In one night, we can lose everything, regardless of the months of work we put into it,” he said.

As he stands in the greenhouse, he points to a plant that has several flowers. He says that’s the one color people want.

“I can say that 80 percent of people who’ve bought flowers from us, want the orange ones for the color and texture,” he said.

Cala and his family celebrate Día de los Muertos every year.

“We remember my dad and my grandparents. They’re not here with us, but they’ll always be in our hearts,” Cala said. “And I think it’s very important because when a loved one is forgotten, then that’s when they’re really dead.” 

Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.