Plant Profile: Calendula
From Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale: ‘The Marigold that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun, And with him rises weeping.’
Pot marigold, poet’s marigold, Mary’s gold (this is not the same plant as true marigolds)
In the garden vibrant calendula resembles more a flower and a ray of sunshine than an herb. Calendula transformed my herb gardening into an experience of radiant reward. If there was only one herb to grow, I may choose this one. The reason…this plant with light green, spear-shaped leaves and orange-yellow petals flourishes so a kitchen apothecary fills with uncomplicated preparations and practical uses.
Calendula is tolerant to any soil, limited watering, and requires no maintenance. It likes full sun but will also grow in shade. Planting when temperatures are mild, maximum in the 60’s will make for stronger growth. When temperatures rise in summer wait to plant until the very end, almost into autumn and in about two weeks bright calendula will be thriving and will bud into the winter keeping alive the warmth of the sun and summer. Last year, even after it was snowing in December, two of my plants were still blooming flowers, generating a gasp in me at the welcome sight.
Also called pot marigold, it is an annual plant, existing for just one year, but calendula will also magically reseed itself or save seeds from the very center of the flower for future sowing. Using the calendula that I grow makes me feel good and bad. I hesitate to pick the flowers because they are so pretty, but not long lasting and harvesting before they wilt and look seedy will stimulate more flower growth. That is one of the best parts about growing calendula: each little plant just keeps on giving flowers. It is best to pick unopened flowers, which have a bit more sticky resin, responsible for some of the wound healing ability. Just pop the flowers off the stems, your fingers will feel a bit of the stickiness as you do. Spend an extra minute or two noticing how each calendula flower is just a bit unique from others, truly a nature fascination.
Purchasing dried flowers provides ample supply for making various herbal preparations, even if calendula is growing outside. Abundant delicate and light petals are essential to yield the two teaspoons needed for one cup of tea, or one ounce or more to make an infused oil or tincture. While using plant material actually grown from seeds and planted yourself captures the energy and essence of herbal medicine making, relying on your own supply may be limiting. On the other hand, supporting herbalists who are growing and selling for their livelihood is also true herbal community. Receiving a bag of already dried calendula petals makes using it one step easier. I have bought beautifully dried packages of calendula from Horizon Herbs, which is an amazing source for seeds, plants, and dried herbs. I recommend smaller, organic herb farms as suppliers rather than bulk sellers. The difference? First, retaining the energy of the plant through sustainable harvesting practices is more likely and second I wonder on the freshness of bulk herbs. When you smell or taste them, there is a difference from the smell or taste of a flower grown in your garden, which is not so obvious from organic herb farms.
Calendula, nicknamed “sun-bride” is warm and dry like a bright summer day. The luminous orange or yellow color of the petals is vivid and cheerful. Here in the United States, calendula is known as marigold not to be confused with garden marigolds that are not medicinal. In Germany it is known as Niewelkblume or the never-wilt-flower and indeed, it blooms and blooms and just when you think it is too cold for flowers, blooms again. It is a plant that gives abundantly, both beauty and remedy. Although the nutrients in calendula have not to my knowledge been measured, flavonoids and carotenoids such as lycopene, quercetin, rutin, and lutein all powerful antioxidants are identified constituents. Other activity comes form triterpenes and organic acids that are antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and protect against ulcers. Calendula is energetically neutral so both drying and moistening. Mucilage and resins heal and soothe. In Chinese Five Element theory, the color yellow is linked to the earth element, which among other functions governs digestive processes. It is not surprising then that calendula aids digestion decreasing bloating and bowel irregularity. The actions are gentle enough for infants and calendula has a pristine safety record.
There is a bitter bite to the flowery taste of calendula, which is a surprise because the fragrance is so sweet. But the taste, especially in dried petals, is actually more tart and nutty than pleasantly honeyed. Calendula is mild enough though to add just for color or decoration and remain inconspicuous.
Like so many flowers, breathing in the fragrance of calendula will momentarily transport to a happier place with a shiver of warmth in the shoulders and back reminiscent of sunrays. It is a mixture of caramel spice with a touch of woodiness from its essence. The honey-like aroma gets lost in the drying of calendula and also in baking.
In certain traditional practices plants, like people, are assigned an astrological correspondence to elements and planets. Nicholas Culpeper, a seventeenth century British herbalist, brought this concept to Western herbalism. While it may not be scientific, it is interesting. Calendula is associated with the sun likely because of its color and radiating shape. With that it possesses solar warming and healing strengths. Early warriors took advantage of calendula’s wound healing on the battlefield using flowers as part of bandaging to promote healing, decrease scarring, and keep infections at bay. In contrast, Roman, Greek, and Asian traditions valued calendula for rituals and ceremonies because of its radiance. The golden yellow blossoms were laced into garland and wreaths, worn as crowns, and decorated altars and religious statues. The common name marigold may have originated from the nickname “Mary’s gold” indicating an association with the purity of the Virgin Mary. The Latin name calendula originated from kalendae or calends defined on the Roman calendar as the first day of the month, the beginning of the new moon cycle, the time when this beauty blooms. Calendula takes its place as a flower known for magic in love and romance. When a girl plants calendula where a man walks, his attention turns to the flower and he will become lost, following the flower to her whether he wants to or not. If calendula is picked from a place a man has laid down his footprint, the same holds true for the woman; inevitable attraction to the man who stepped there.
Culinary and Cooking
Calendula is overlooked as an ingredient in American cuisine, better known for its use in facial creams, baby lotions, and healing salves. There is great purpose though in keeping it close at hand in your kitchen. In earlier times, before our food was permeated with chemicals, cooks knew the usefulness of calendula as a coloring agent. In Asia and Europe, calendula added golden vibrancy to butter and cheese, broths and soups, custards and puddings. Better known as “poor man’s saffron” its coloring ability as well as mild, nutty flavor attracted all classes, even royalty. King Henry VIII of England requested his food be full of bright color and strong seasoning and his cooks turned to calendula for the solution to both. The common name “pot marigold” may have evolved from adding to the kettle pot of broth, stew, and porridge. Broths and conserves made with calendula flowers offered comfort to the spirit and strengthening of the heart, especially when prepared from dried flowers in winter. Because calendula is so lovely it garnishes salads or cheers up a dip or spread. Infusing calendula petals in rice vinegar will make bright and beautiful vinegar. Calendula introduces a unique taste, mildly spicy and a bit nutlike. The petals are the only part of the flower used in cooking because the center is too bitter. Whether fresh or dried, they are chewy, but when chopped or powdered this is barely noticeable. Calendula is known for its ability to heal the skin, but it is also amazingly soothing for the digestive tract, decreasing indigestion and inflammation. Without much of a stretch, you can feel the comfort.
Beneficial Qualities and Traditional Uses
Calendula delivers both external and internal remedies. It is one of the premier vulnerary therapies, a term given to plants used for wound healing. This traditional use makes it vital for your kitchen medicine cabinet. By promoting cell repair and growth, calendula heals cuts, bruises, minor burns and sunburn, inflamed skin, even skin ulcers. Topically, apply oils and salves made with calendula anywhere but they are especially good “where the sun does not shine” under the neck, arms, breasts, and in the groin area. Prepare a strong infused calendula tea then use as a compress, an antiseptic wash, a mouth rinse, or eyewash. So gentle and soothing, yet potent in its healing ability, calendula is a main ingredient in baby oils and creams for diaper rash, cradle cap and other infant skin irritations. Calendula’s antifungal action makes a useful remedy for thrush, here using the tea as a mouthwash. It is also healing for inflammation on cheeks or gums, for canker sores, laryngitis, and tonsillitis. It has the ability to cleanse, control bleeding, and encourage healing by boosting the immune response. For healing wounds, calendula benefits any from minor scratches to severe cuts, decreases pain and prevents inflammation or pus formation. The emollient action decreases scars from forming and also soothes dry, itchy, flaky eczema. Internally, calendula tea or tincture also assists the immune system in healing sore throat or swollen glands. Calendula has a protective component for the stomach that can aid indigestion, soothing the discomfort of cramps, gastric and duodenal ulcers as well as symptoms of leaky gut syndrome.
Pick flowers in the morning when they have fully opened. Gently pluck the petals from the center receptacle, which is too bitter to eat. Techniques for drying range from placing petals on screens and allowing to dry in the sun to using a food dehydrator. Store dried flowers in a dark colored jar. When ready to use, powder the petals in a coffee grinder, one not used for grinding coffee. If using fresh for cooking, they can also be pureed with a small amount of water and frozen in small batches.
For medicinal strength tea, an infusion is prepared using 2 teaspoons of dried and powdered flowers with 8 ounces hot water combined in something like a French coffee press and allowed to steep for 1 hour. For a lighter, yet lovely beverage, the fresh flower petals can be placed in a glass jar covered with water and allowed to sit in the sun for a while. Drinking this you can feel calendula’s warming and healing goodness.
Calendula can be made into syrup using sugar, honey, or maple syrup. First prepare a strong infusion of calendula as above. Once the infusion is ready, strain the herb and measure one cup (8oz) of the liquid. Place in a small saucepan with one cup of whichever sweetener you are using. If it is sugar heat over low heat until the sugar has dissolved and then continue to simmer covered with the lid slightly ajar until the syrup has thickened to the consistency desired. If using honey take care to use the lowest heat so as not to destroy the enzymes of the honey, heat until smoothly combined and slightly thick. Do the same if using maple syrup, but heat can be slightly higher. Thickening usually takes approximately 20 minutes.
The standard for making herbal wines is to use one part herb and five parts wine. That translates, for example, to 50 grams of calendula petals, multiply 50 times 5 to get 250, and this would be the amount of wine to use, 250ml. In my experience, the calendula will absorb a portion of the wine and it is impossible to squeeze it all out. So I add more than the accurate amount. I do not think this hurts your wine or makes it less potent. But you can also keep to the accurate measurements and then after straining the herbal wine, you can add more to get the amount that you need for a recipe.
Calendula oil is the classic topical preparation for many skin problems. Once made, it can be used as is or transformed into a liniment or a salve with other ingredients. There are different ways to make calendula oil and I think any is good. Fresh, dried, or powdered calendula buds and olive, sesame or almond oils are all used. Blend together or just combine herb and oil in a glass jar. You can leave the jar in sunlight or infuse it by heating at very low temperatures for 2 to 3 weeks. My favorite way to make infused oil is using a yogurt maker. Once the oil is ready, it can be strained and made double strength by adding more calendula flowers to the already infused oil. Measure 2 ounces to a cup of oil or just fill the jar ¾ full and then pour oil over to just barely reach the top of the jar. This oil transforms easily into salves, lotions, creams, and body butters for using on almost any skin ailment.
The formal tincturing method utilizes 1 part dried calendula to 5 parts alcohol. That converts, for example, to 100grams calendula petals and 500ml grain alcohol. Many herbalists who prepare tinctures use a simpler method, which does not involve measuring, the flowers are placed in a jar and vodka is poured over them to cover by about 2 inches. The extraction process takes a long time, about 6 weeks. During that time, keep the jar in a cool dark place and shake it daily.
- Engels G: Calendula. Herbalgram 2008; 77:1-2.
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- Wood M: The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California; 2008.
- Gladstar R: Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. Storey Publishing, Massachusetts; 2012.