Calendula, Sunshine Incarnate - An Edible and Medicinal Flower
Calendula officinalis is one of the easiest-to-grow medicinal herbs and so versatile in its healing properties that it invariably finds its way into the hearts and gardens of all herb lovers. It is typically grown as an annual, but can be cultivated as a short-lived perennial in warmer climes (Zone 8-10). Calendula’s name derives from the Latin Calendae, referring to its long-blooming season – in certain locales it is said to bloom in nearly every month of the calendar. The species name, officinalis, refers to its historical use in apothecaries and pharmacopeias as the official medicinal species of the genus. Calendula is also called marigold and pot marigold; it is often confused with members of the genus Tagetes, which go by the same common name. Marigolds in the Tagetes genus are in the same family as Calendula – the Asteraceae (Sunflower family) – but they are not interchangeable with calendula.
The “flowers” of the Asteraceae, or Compositae family, are actually an aggregation of miniature flowers called florets. Look closely at the picture below, and you can see the individual flowers in the center, not yet open, still in their bud form. When you pick calendula, your fingers will be sticky from the resinous bracts, which form the green base of the flower head. The resin is an important part of calendula’s healing legacy, and is a good indicator of strength. If you are buying calendula, make sure it has a bright yellow or orange color, which is a good barometer of its freshness and medicinal quality.
Calendula officinalis is native to southern Europe, but is widely cultivated and naturalized throughout North America, Europe and North Africa. It has been used medicinally for centuries to heal wounds, burns and rashes, internally and externally. The flowers have also been used traditionally to support the immune system and lift the spirits.
Easy peasy, even for the brownest of thumb. Sow the bizarre-looking seeds directly in the ground in mid-spring; germination takes 10 to 14 days. Thin to 12 inches apart. Calendula will thrive in just about any soil, but like most plants, it prefers to have soil that is not overly dry or wet (non-draining). It will flower more profusely in full sun, but can tolerate a little shade. If you live in the subtropics or tropics, try planting it in part-shade, also try planting in the fall (it will thrive in the winter in many warm climates). Here in the southern Appalachians, I plant my calendula when I plant my salad and cooking greens. The greens grow quicker and fill in the bed, and by the time the calendula matures and begins to flower, the greens have been harvested, and calendula has more room to flourish.
There are countless varieties of calendula, with many shades of sunset: orange, yellow, and russet. There are multi-“petaled” varieties for extra garden bling (and edible “petals”), and varieties with increased resin, purported to be more medicinally active. The flowers need to be picked every two days in order to promote and prolong the flowering season. Dry on screens or airy baskets in a well-ventilated warm area. Schluffle the flowers often (my invented Yiddish-inspired term for gently tussling-about anything drying). Pictured below is my daughter’s friend picking calendula from our herbal garden for one of their many potions.
Soon after giving birth to my daughter I received a meal from an herbalist friend – a nourishing quiche crafted from homegrown veggies, speckled with the orange and yellow of calendula “petals”. Such a small touch made a large impression; I felt the warmth and sunshine of summer in every bite. The colorful “petals” of calendula are actually the ray florets (diminutive flowers, serving a similar function as petals). These ray florets are plucked from the more medicinal-tasting green flower base, and can be eaten raw or cooked. The florets may also be dried and rehydrated at a later date. My family enjoys them in salads, salsas, scrambled eggs, and frittatas; we also use them as a garnish on just about any dish.
Pictured below is a wild-greens saag paneer (garnished with calendula), scrambled eggs with nopalitos (fresh cactus pads) and calendula flowers, salad with edible flowers (daylily, calendula, and heartsease) and a cherry nopalitos salsa (recipe here).
The whole flowers can also be dried, and added to soups and stews in the winter as an immune tonic. This traditional folk use heralds from medieval Europe, where the flowers were also added to bread, syrups and conserves. Culpepper wrote, “The flowers, either green or dried, are much used in possets, broths, and drink, as a comforter of the heart and spirits, and to expel any malignant or pestilential quality which might annoy them.”
Another account, written in 1699, states “The yellow leaves of the flowers are dried and kept throughout Dutchland against winter to put into broths, physicall potions and for divers other purposes, in such quantity that in some Grocers or Spicesellers are to be found barrels filled with them and retailed by the penny or less, insomuch that no broths are well made without dried Marigold.”
Every winter I make a strong medicinal mineral-rich bone broth of calendula flowers, turkey tail, astragalus, seaweed, nettles, organic beef bones and shiitake. I cook it in a big pot all day, concentrating the brew with evaporation by leaving the lid off. After straining and cooling, it is frozen into small portions, and subsequently added to soup, stew, marinara, and chili all throughout the winter months. This herbal broth is an excellent way to sneak in extra minerals into our diets, and also doubles as an immune tonic, helping to keep colds and flu at bay. My daughter has an exceptionally discerning palette (i.e. picky) and doesn’t notice the extra herbal additions to her meals.
Summer ideas for calendula flowers: Pictured below are ice cubes fashioned from calendula and wild bergamot flowers. The yellow flowers can be used to adorn iced teas, along with a sprig of mint for contrast. For recipes on floral-adorned herbal ice cubes
Common Name: Calendula, Pot marigold, Marigold
Scientific name: Calendula officinalis
Part used: whole flowers
1:2 95% 1-2 droppers full up to 4 times a day
1:5 70% 1-2 droppers full up to 4 times a day
Infusion: 1-2 grams in 8 ounces of water (about 1-3 Tablespoons dried flowers), up to three times a day
Topical preparations: poultice, compress, infused oil and salve. Dilute tincture with water (1 part tincture to 3 parts water) for topical use.
Anti-inflammatory to skin and mucosa
Lymphagogue (moves lymph)
Vulnerary (promotes healing of damaged tissue)
Emmenagogue (stimulates menstrual flow)
Cholagogue (stimulates bile)
Energetics: warming, drying
Gastro-intestinal anti-inflammatory: calendula tea is commonly used to help heal peptic ulcers, esophageal irritation from GERD, and inflammatory bowel disease. Calendula helps heal inflammation from infection or irritation through its vulnerary, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial actions.
Lymphatic: acute or chronically swollen lymph nodes: respiratory infection, localized infection, and tonsillitis. Also used for poor immunity, to help prevent infection through stimulating the lymphatic system.
Gums and mouth: gargle for sore throat, aphthous ulcers (canker sores), periodontal disease, thrush, sore and bleeding gums.
Emmenagogue: sluggish menses, amenorrhea
Topical applications: rashes, stings, wounds, burns, sunburns, abrasions, swellings, eczema, acne, surgical wounds, scrapes, chicken pox, cold sores, genital herpes sores, and as a douche for bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection and cervical dysplasia.
Personal Clinical Experience:
Calendula is one of the primary herbs I recommend for GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), along with licorice, slippery elm and meadowsweet. I also find it helpful in healing peptic ulcers; it can be taken concurrently with antibiotic therapy, and then continued for two weeks after finishing treatment. Calendula is often combined with the aforementioned herbs to promote the healing of gastric and duodenal mucosa.
I think of calendula as a weaker, more tonic antifungal as compared to some of our more heroic herbal anti-fungals, such as bloodroot and black walnut. It is often taken as a tonic tea for people who are prone to recurrent fungal skin infections, after a two-week regime of hard hitting internal and topical anti-fungal treatment.
Calendula is one of my favored personal wintertime teas, as I find it so uplifting, especially when I am feeling the long-dark-night-blahs. Interestingly, a strong cup of calendula tea has a flavor reminiscent of unsweetened cacao. Most modern herbalists don’t typically use it as one of their primary anti-depressant herb, but it is mentioned for that specific use in multiple historical texts. Calendula may be called upon for grief and sadness along with other cheering flowers: rose, mimosa and lavender. In addition, consider other helpful herbal companions, such as lemonbalm and lemon verbena.
I always keep calendula oil stocked in my frig and will also combine it with plantain, chickweed, saint john’s wort, and violet in salve form. When my daughter had chicken pox I made a fresh poultice from calendula mixed with other herbs (recipe follows) and applied it daily. She had quite the outbreak and doesn’t even have one scar, thanks to this herbal poultice.
Chicken pox poultice recipe:
Take a couple handfuls of fresh violet, plantain and yarrow leaves and add a handful of calendula flowers. Blend with a little warm water and calendula oil and then add slippery elm powder to desired consistency. In five minutes it will begin to soldifify as the powder absorbs water. It should be thick enough that it wont run, but soft enough that it is easily applied. If the fresh herbs are not in season, use the dried herbs softened with a bit of hot boiling water. The poultice may be refrigerated and used for three days.
Apply poultice to the pox, taking care to cover furniture with an old sheet first, as it’s quite messy. Allow the poultice to work it’s magic for a full hour, full-on distractions called for here. To rinse the poultice off, add 3 cups oatmeal to a cotton bag and then run bath water over the bag. Two drops of lavender essential oil can be added to the bath as well. Use this nourishing water to bathe the child, employing the bag to gently clean the skin. Do not rinse off unless the skin is too oily, in which case you may need to use soap. You can also make a strong tea of the above herbs, strain, and add to the bath.
Regularly change clothes and use clean towels to prevent the occurrence of secondary infections.
Contra-indications/ Side effects: pregnancy, potentially rare allergic reaction with individuals sensitive to the Asteraceae.
For calendula oil and lip balm recipes, check out the Mountain Rose blog.