Calendula’s Herbal & Edible Uses:
How to Grow, Gather, and Prepare Calendula as Food and Medicine
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
Calendula (Calendula officinalis, Asteraceae) is one of the easiest herbs to grow and a highly versatile medicinal plant—naturally, it finds its way into the hearts and gardens of all herb lovers. It has been used for centuries, both internally and topically, to heal wounds, burns, and rashes. The sunshiny flowers are a traditional remedy for supporting the immune system and lifting the spirits. If that weren’t enough, the edible ray florets of the flower heads (which look like yellow petals) are bursting with antioxidant compounds.
Calendula’s name derives from the Latin calendae, referring to its long blooming season—in certain locales it is said to bloom nearly every month of the calendar year. The species name, officinalis, refers to its historical use in apothecaries and pharmacopeias as the official medicinal species of its genus.
Calendula is also called marigold and pot marigold, leading to confusion with members of the genus Tagetes, which go by the same common name. The marigolds that you’ve seen as common garden ornamentals are in the Tagetes genus, which is in the same family as Calendula—the Asteraceae, or sunflower family—but they are not medicinally interchangeable.
As I mentioned before, calendula’s “petals” are actually ray florets, which are miniature flowers unto themselves (this is a classic trait of the Asteraceae family). Look closely at the picture below, and you can see tiny flower buds in the center, soon to open into individual florets. I will simply refer to the ray florets as petals from here on out—please forgive my botanical transgression, which is perpetrated solely for the sake of easy reading.
For all medicinal preparations, be sure that you use the whole dried flowers, as the medicinal oils are found mostly in the resinous green bases of the flower heads (these are called involucres, botanically speaking). Also take care that the dried petals are bright yellow or orange, which is another indication of quality and freshness. Sometimes calendula is sold as petals only, but this is weaker medicine.
Growing & Harvesting Calendula
Growing calendula from seed is easy-peasy, even for the brownest of thumbs. Sow the prehistoric-looking seeds directly in the ground in mid-spring; germination takes five to fourteen days. Thin to 12 inches (0.3 m) apart. Alternately, if your spring weather is chilly, plant seeds out in trays and transplant the starts when the days warm up.
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’s typically grown as an annual, but can be cultivated as a short-lived perennial in warmer climes (Zones 8-10). 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, or plant it in the fall (it will thrive throughout the winter in warm climates).
Here in the southern Appalachians, I plant my calendula when I start my salad and cooking greens. The greens grow more quickly 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. One of my current favorites is ‘alpha,’ a variety with plenty of resin and mixed double yellow and orange petals. You can use any of the Calendula officinalis cultivars as food or medicine, although the yellow and orange varieties are more common in medicinal preparations. Let the aroma and stickiness of the flowers guide you in finding your personal favorite types of calendula.
The flowers need to be picked every two to three days to promote and prolong the plant’s flowering season. If you let the plants go to seed, they will stop making new flowers. As you’re picking, be sure to deadhead the flowers that have started to go to seed. These overripe blooms have petals sticking up at odd angles or petals that have already fallen off the plant, and the green seeds will be developing. I give these far-gone flowers back to the earth, forgoing them as medicine.
Pick the flowers in the heat of the day when the dew has evaporated and the flowers are looking perky. When you pick calendula, your fingers will be sticky from the resinous bracts, which form the green base of the flower head. Dry on screens or airy baskets in a well-ventilated, warm area. “Schluffle” the flowers often (my invented, Yiddish-inspired term for gently tussling drying herbs).
Be sure the entire flower head is dry before you put up your harvest. The petals will be completely dried and crunchy and the green base of the flower head will be pliable when you break it open, but it shouldn’t be overly moist. Err on the side of overdrying. Depending on your climate and drying setup, it may take a week to ten days to properly dry calendula.
Edible Flowers: Calendula In the Kitchen
Soon after giving birth to my daughter—in the middle of winter—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.
To prepare calendula for eating, the petals are plucked from the medicinal-tasting green flower base and can be eaten raw or cooked. Try calendula petals in salads, salsas, scrambled eggs, quiche, and frittatas. The yellow and orange confetti adds merriment and festivity to any dish. Add the petals to herbal compound butters with other edible blooms, such as chives.
In the summertime, whole flower heads can be frozen in ice cube trays, creating decorative ice cubes fit for the finest herbal libation. You can fancy things up even more by freezing the flowers in colorful herbal tea. For one of my favorite recipes, see my article on Herbal Ice Cubes. Harvest flowers with longer stems intact for adorning iced herbal teas and botanical cocktails, and add a sprig of mint for contrast.
Calendula’s petals are more than a fetching culinary adornment. Like other edible blooms, they are loaded with antioxidant compounds. Its colorful petals are high in carotenoids, such as flavoxanthin and auroxanthin.
- Scrambled eggs with nopalitos (fresh cactus pads; Opuntia spp.) and calendula flowers
- Wild-greens saag paneer (garnished with calendula)
- Salad with edible flowers—daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), calendula, and heartsease (Viola tricolor)
- Cherry nopalitos salsa (recipe here).
The whole flowers can also be dried and added to soups and stews as a winter immune tonic. This traditional folk use heralds from medieval Europe, where the flowers were likewise added to bread, syrups, and conserves. In the classic 1863 text The Complete Herbal, Nicholas 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.”1
Medicinal Bone Broth with Calendula
Every winter, I make a strong medicinal and mineral-rich bone broth of calendula flowers, turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), astragalus (Astragalus propinquus), stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), seaweed, organic beef bones, and shiitake (Lentinula edodes) mushrooms. I simmer it in a big pot all day, concentrating the brew with evaporation by leaving the lid off. After straining and cooling, it’s 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 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 (a euphemism for picky-as-all-get-out) and doesn’t notice this extra herbal addition to her meals.
Medicinal Benefits of Calendula
Parts Used: Whole flowers (as mentioned before, be sure to use the entire flower head, including the green base, rather than the petals alone)
Medicinal Preparations: Tea, tincture, infused oil, salve, broth, compress, poultice, vaginal douches and suppositories, sitz baths
Tincture ratios and dosage: Fresh flowers 1:2 95%; dried flowers 1:6 70%. Both preparations 2–3 ml (⅖ to ⅗ teaspoon) three times a day
Infusion ratios and dosage: 1 Tablespoon (15 ml) of the dried flowers infused in 1 cup (240 ml) of water three times a day; 3 to 12 grams of the dried flower a day by infusion
- Vulnerary (promotes wound healing)
- Emmenagogue (stimulates menstrual flow)
- Cholagogue (stimulates bile)
Medicinal Uses: Calendula is a wonderful digestive ally, and it’s one of the primary herbs I recommend for GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), which commonly affects people with the symptoms of heartburn.
In the case of peptic ulcers, calendula can be taken concurrently with antibiotic therapy (to address the presence of the bacterial infection of H. pylori, or Helicobacter pylori), and then continued for two weeks after finishing treatment. See the notes below for important contraindications associated with calendula.
This is an outstanding herb for stimulating the lymphatic system. It’s used to treat acute or chronically swollen lymph nodes resulting from respiratory infections, localized infections, and tonsillitis. It is also used to build immunity by helping to prevent infection through activation of the lymphatic system.
Calendula is one of my personal favorite wintertime teas. I find it so uplifting, especially when I’m feeling the long-dark-night blahs. Interestingly, I find the flavor of a strong cup of calendula tea to be reminiscent of unsweetened cacao. Most modern herbalists don’t use it as one of their primary antidepressant herbs, but it’s mentioned for this specific use in multiple historical texts. Calendula may be called upon for grief and sadness along with other cheering flowers, such as rose (Rosa spp.), mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). Consider adding citrusy herbal cheer as well, such as lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora).
Calendula as a Topical Medicinal Remedy
Topically, calendula addresses myriad skin complaints, including rashes, stings, wounds, burns, abrasions, swellings, eczema, acne, insect bites, scrapes, bruises, chickenpox, cold sores, cervical dysplasia, diaper rash, cracked nipples from breastfeeding, and postpartum perineal tears.
I keep calendula oil stocked in my fridge, often combining it with plantain (Plantago spp.), chickweed (Stellaria media), Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), and violet (Viola sororia and others) in salve form. I add calendula to herbal mouthwash formulas for periodontal disease, thrush, and bleeding gums.
Calendula can also bring healing relief as a poultice, compress, or soak. These are all topical preparations traditionally used to help relieve pain, infection, and swelling. When my daughter had chicken pox, I made a fresh poultice from calendula mixed with other herbs and applied it daily. She had quite the outbreak and doesn’t even have one scar, thanks to this herbal poultice.
Safety and Contraindications: Do not use calendula internally during pregnancy since it has traditionally been used to bring on menses. As calendula is in the aster family, it may cause a reaction for people who are highly sensitive to plants like ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) and chamomile (Matricaria recutita); this possibility is rare, but sensitive individuals should proceed with caution when using calendula for the first time. Rare incidences of allergic contact dermatitis have occurred with the topical use of calendula.
- Culpeper, N. The Complete Herbal; to Which Is Now Added, Upwards of One Hundred Additional Herbs, with a Display of Their Medicinal and Occult Qualities Physically Applied To the Cure of All Disorders Incident to Mankind . (Thomas Kelly & Company, 1863).
Meet the Green Mastermind Behind Blog Castanea:
JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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