Calendula Beautiful and Useful

Summer 2020
Calendula offers season-long blooms for pollinators, and its flowers are edible and medicinal. Photo by Mary McAvoy

By Joyce White

There are so many reasons to plant a big bed of calendula, Calendula officinalis. It blooms until frost for cut flowers and medicine, it isn’t fussy about where it’s planted, pollinators like it, it can be added as a garnish to food, and its seed is easy to save for next year’s planting.

In the Asteraceae family, calendula’s cheery blooms of bright yellow and orange with an occasional off-white flower begin appearing about six weeks after planting. They can be started inside in April for earlier flowering, and the blooms vary nicely in shape and shade, from fluffy, double heads to the more ordinary flat, daisy-like shapes.

Also called pot marigold, calendula is native to south central Europe and North Africa and includes about 15 species. Plants are branched and can grow to 2 feet (mine reach only about a foot). Leaves are 3 to 6 inches long and oblong, with stalks gently clasping the stem.

Flower heads, 2 to 3 inches across, consist of several rows of ray florets and a central cluster of tubular flowers. Blossoms close slightly at night and on very cloudy days but open wide in morning sun. Frequently cutting flower heads will keep the plants blooming at least until the end of October in Maine. I always leave some in the garden so that in the fall I can collect enough seeds for the following year, leaving the rest of the seeds for birds. The seeds (achenes) have an interesting shape – curved into a sort of half circle and tapering to a point at one end.

Calendula for Health

Calendula has so many healing properties that, as David Hoffmann says in “Herbs for Healthy Aging,” it’s almost a medicine chest in itself. It is one of the best herbs for treating skin problems. It can be used safely on inflamed skin whether due to infection or damage, including external bleeding and both new injuries and old, and on slowly healing areas such as skin ulcers.  Bruises, burns and bacterial and fungal infections can be treated safely and effectively with an externally applied lotion, ointment, poultice or compress, or calendula can be taken internally as a tincture or tea. It is also ideal for treating minor burns and scalds – and probably for sunburn, although I haven’t remembered to use it for that.

Hoffmann adds that it is valuable for treating digestive discomfort and inflammation and therefore can help treat ulcers and symptoms of some gall bladder problems as well as those vague symptoms described as “indigestion.”

Steven Foster says in “Herbal Renaissance” that “calendula” means that the plant will bloom nearly year round or on the “calends” – the new moon of each month. (That doesn’t ring quite true for Maine.) The species name, “officinalis,” tells us it was the “official” calendula of the apothecary shop. Marigold is derived from the association of the plant in Catholic tradition with festivals honoring the Virgin Mary.

Foster began his 40 years of comprehensive experience in the herbal field with the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Herb Department in New Gloucester, Maine, America’s oldest herb business dating to 1799. At the Shaker gardens, he says, “we planted four 300 foot rows of calendula from four ounces of seed. We harvested the flower crop three times. A week after each cutting, the rows were again covered with blossoms. About 20 pounds of dried flower heads were gathered from this planting.” Even my small planting in less than ideal soil produces enough for tincture, salve and cut flowers into early November as well as plenty of seeds for the birds and for me.

Calendula, Foster says, is called “poor man’s saffron” since the flavoring and coloring potential are similar to that of saffron. Calendula adds a subtle saline flavor and delicate yellow hue to such foods as rice and grains. Fresh petals are good in salads and can be added to soups. In medieval Europe calendula blossoms were used as a base for soups and broths.

Calendula tea promotes sweating, he says, and is useful in treating ulcers, both internally and externally. Two centuries ago it was used widely to treat jaundice. Its primary traditional and current use is as a lotion, tincture or cooled tea wash for sprains, bruises, cuts, minor infections and burns.

Foster tells of a 90-year-old friend who had been using his homemade calendula tincture for all his family’s cuts, burns and abrasions for 70 years. He made tincture by soaking the whole fresh plant in vodka for two weeks and diluted the tincture with nine parts water with each use.

Calendula was researched for stimulating the immune system to help treat AIDS, but Foster reminds us that even if it is proven to enhance immune system activity, that does not indicate it is a cure-all. Rather, he says, calendula has simply been shown to help activate the body’s own cells to “gobble up foreign debris or invaders.” It may help activate other defense mechanisms, subtly.

Over 30 chemical compounds have been identified in this herb – many useful in healing. Various studies suggest a scientific basis for its anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial activity, and an ointment containing the flower extract has been shown to stimulate wound healing. Calendula appears to be nontoxic and has a long history of safe and effective use that Foster believes warrants further research.

Calendula at Avena

At MOFGA-certified organic Avena Botanicals in West Rockport, Maine, herbalist Deb Soule says calendula grows best in full sun in well-drained, compost-amended soil. Avena starts 1,000 calendula plugs in the greenhouse in mid-April and transplants them to the garden in mid- to late May. Another 1,000 plugs are seeded in mid-May and yet another the first week of June. In Soule’s experience, the first of the transplants usually have diminished in size and vigor by August, when they are pulled and composted. That space is then seeded to borage or oats. The last two calendula plantings bloom well into October if they received enough water. They are usually pulled by late October. Each bed is then covered in a thin layer of compost topped with straw. Those beds are then ready in spring to receive other annuals. Soule believes it is better for the soil and for the health of annuals to rotate them on a three-year basis.

The first calendula harvest at Avena Botanicals begins in late June, when the staff collects blossoms two or three times a week. Soule prefers to pick the blooms with her fingers rather than scissors, as she likes to feel the stickiness of their resin. When each harvest is complete, the staff takes the basket of blooms into the herb drying room, weighs the blossoms and lays them on screens to dry. On average they harvest 300 to 350 pounds of fresh calendula each growing season.

Calendula is an important ingredient in many of Avena’s teas, salves and face creams. The herbalists tincture several gallons of fresh flowers and create a fresh succus – medicinal juice – by grinding both flowers and leaves together in a small amount of alcohol. The liquid succus is used as a spray on insect bites and to reduce scarring after surgery.

In the Garden

For small-scale herb gardens, calendula is ideal. One need not be a particularly experienced gardener or herbalist to grow an ample supply of this versatile and quite forgiving plant. In mid-April I start saved seed in individual containers of seed-starting mix. I place the containers on top of the fridge until the first leaves appear and then move them to a sunny, south-facing slider until they’re sturdy enough to transplant outdoors, toward the end of May. Once in the garden, they need about a foot between plants and need to be watered if rain doesn’t come every week. In my garden they get only late morning and afternoon sun and appear to be satisfied. I often tell them how beautiful they are, and I thank them when I snip their blooms.

About the author: Joyce White lives in Stoneham, Maine, and is a frequent contributor to The MOF&G.

This article is for informational purposes only. For serious medical conditions, please consult your health care practitioner.

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