Calendula (kəˈlɛndjuːlə) is a genus consisting of nearly 20 species of annual and perennial flowering plants in the daisy family; often known as the marigolds. The most commonly cultivated member of this family is the Calendula officinalis or as its commonly known, the ‘pot marigold’. It is often confused with ornamental marigolds, ones belonging to the tagets genus. If you intend to make medicine or use calendula in any topical mixture, make certain you are gathering the right flowers. Also, the more vivid the color, the higher the level of active medicinal ingredients.
Calendula or Marigold? Know the Differences
There are several differences between the two genus. First start by looking at the seed head; an ornamental marigold will have a straight black seeds with white tips, while a calendula seed is brown, U-shaped, and feels bumpy to the touch. A second way would be to compare the plants visually. An ornamental marigold petal appears rectangular with slightly rounded corners. The complete shape of the flower is somewhat spherical with a yellowish center that seemingly blooms with the petals. Ornamental marigolds come in many colors and can present in both solid or mixed combinations of yellow, red, orange, cream or maroon. Marigolds can grow up to four feet high if given enough space.
Calendula rarely grows any larger than two feet tall. The shape of an individual petal is long and straight with an ovular end. The complete flower is flattened and wider and can be yellow or orange in most cases. There are pink, white, and multi-colored varieties also. They also have a distinct center, much like a daisy, that is either brown or dark yellow. Proper identification is critical. All calendula flowers are edible while marigold flowers pose a health risk when consumed.
History and Geography
For centuries throughout Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean, calendula flowers have been added to food, used to treat a variety of topical ailments, and used extensively as decorations in the Hindu world. It is an annual, but one that easily reproduces through self-seeding. The name calendula has been associated with the Latin word for calendar; likely given due to the almost clockwork-like blooming cycle the plant has. The common name, marigold, is connected to the Catholic icon, the Virgin Mary. Originally they were called, Mary’s Gold. Long ago marigolds were used in Catholic religious ceremonies Even today, the marigold is used in Mexico on the feast of the Day of the Dead.
Ancient Egyptians considered them to have rejuvenating properties and they were used in magical rites and as decoration. In the Hindu world, the flower symbolizes auspiciousness. The saffron/orange color signifies renunciation and hence is offered to God as a symbol of surrender. The flowers were used to adorn statues of gods in their temples and as offerings. They also hold a prominent place in nearly every Hindu festival, wedding, or ceremony. Bathing in a calendula infusion was thought to give one a healthy, sunny glow that would draw admiration and respect of those around you. Both the Romans and the Greeks used calendula flowers in many rituals and ceremonies, sometimes even wearing crowns or garlands made from them.
Making Medicine That Works
Calendula has a long history of medicinal use throughout the world. It’s considered a vulnerary agent, a plant which promotes healing. It has been used both internally and externally with above-average results compared to other healing herbs. It has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial characteristics. When applied to wounds, calendula prevents microbial growth and does not cause skin tissues to retract, thus providing more oxygen to the skin cells to lessen healing time. The flowers are high in Vitamin C and have been used to increase circulation and improve appetite.
As a salve or ointment, calendula has been used to treat diaper rash, acne, burns, scrapes and scratches, minor abrasions, small cuts, insect bites, and some recurring skin conditions such as dermatitis and eczema. Washes can be concocted to treat the flaking and itching symptoms of cradle cap and dandruff. Also infused compresses can be used to treat muscle spasms, to reduce fever, and for relief of menstrual cramps. It can also be applied externally for hemorrhoids or inflammation of the rectal area, peeling and chapped lips, conjunctivitis, vaginal yeast infections, ear infections, and even nosebleeds.
When taken internally, usually as tea, calendula has been cited as an effective treatment for mouth sores, gum disease, ulcers, stomach and duodenal ulcers (peptic ulcers found in the small intestine). It can also help to ease discomfort of constipation and abdominal cramping. Women find it helpful for painful periods, tender ovaries, blocked tubes, and in maintaining equilibrium during menopause. It has a mild estrogenic action which many find effective in reducing menstrual pain and even to regulate menstrual bleeding. It’s also believed to help reduce cellulite when consumed regularly. Calendula tends to irritate gallbladder conditions and if you plan on taking it internally and are already taking prescription medications you should consult your physician first. People who are allergic to ragweed, daisies or chrysanthemums may have a reaction when using preparations using this herb; the most common adverse reaction being a skin rash.
From early on in world history, calendula was recognized and used for its healing properties. Renowned English Botanist, Nicholas Culpeper advocated that calendula had many healing properties, dating back to the 1600’s. In other ancient medical writings, calendula was recommended for treating ailments of the digestive tract and to detoxify the liver and gall bladder. The flowers were applied directly to open wounds to staunch bleeding, prevent infection and speed healing. During the Civil War, calendula flowers were used on the battlefields in open wounds as antihemorrhagic and antiseptic, and they were used by surgeons when dressing wounds to promote healing. Calendula also was used in this way during World War I. Overall it has been historically significant in medicine in many cultures, and it is still important in today’s holistic and herbal medicine.
Its nearly impossible to get 100% pure calendula essential oil, so its marketed as an infusion. It is completely non-toxic and highly effective in treating nearly every sort of skin disorder ranging from acne to chapped lips. It’s effectiveness is due to natural antioxidant properties. As an antioxidant, calendula extracts protect the body from damage caused by an immuno-suppressing function called oxidation. Aside from its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to help heal wounds, the essential oil has been used to refresh, or regenerate the skin, as a treatment for dermatitis, sore muscles, ringworm, and other viral skin conditions.
Cooking with Calendula
For centuries, the flowers and sometimes the leaves of this herb have been used in soups and stews, which helps to explains the common name of ‘pot marigold’. This was done primarily as a way to boost immunity in the winter months. In some parts of Europe, dried flower petals were added to breads, syrups, conserves (a sweet spread similar to jam or jelly,) broths, drinks, and possets (a drink made of hot milk curdled with ale, wine, or other alcoholic liquor and typically flavored with spices, consumed as a remedy for colds). The petals were also used to add color to butter and cheese.
In warmer months, fresh petals can be added to just about anything that would benefit from the extra color. They are commonly added to green salads, used to garnish summertime drinks, and even used to make colorful ice cubes and homemade popsicles. The flowers are traditional ingredients in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes as well. Calendula tea provides health benefits, as well as being delicious.
Consumption of calendula is considered safe unless you are pregnant or breastfeeding. There are properties in the flower which could cause miscarriage. It may cause an allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to the Asteraceae/Compositae family. Members of this family include ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies, and many others. If you have allergies, be sure to check with your healthcare provider before consuming it.
There are many benefits to growing Calendula; it provides an abundance of beautiful flowers ranging from light yellow to deep orange that will attract helpful bees to your garden and it can be used in multiple ways for home herbal healing. It’s easy to grow in either pots or in gardens, and if you live in a warmer climate it will provide fresh blooms on a regular basis. This herb prefers full sun but can tolerate light shade in warmer areas. It is recommended that you plant in nutrient-rich soil or high-quality potting soil for the best results
Plant seeds 12″ to 24″ apart when starting new beds. Maturity will occur 45-60 days after seeds are sown and the plant has reached about 24″ tall. This herb does require ample watering to get established and mulch to prevent weeds and keep the roots cool. Flowers should be harvested at the height of their bloom, when the dew has evaporated. You’ll find that this plant can be harvested every few days and it will start producing new flowers as soon as the open flowers are picked. Do not wash flowers after they’ve been harvested; lay them in a single layer on a towel or in wicker baskets with good air flow for drying. Ensure flowers are absolutely dry before storing them in containers out of sunlight.
If you are sowing in pots, don’t be concerned about them getting too large; Calendula will adapt to the space available. Be careful that your pots drain well to prevent root rot. Well established pots do not need copious watering. Pinch the tops regularly to prevent tall spindly stalks. As it is with many potted herbs, you may see a slow-down of flower production in extreme summer heat; do not be alarmed by this as it is a normal thing. You can expect to see flowers until late fall, even after the first frosts.
Disease or insect infestation issues are minimal with Calendula. Many home-based growers will plant these flowers adjacent to tomatoes, carrots, and chard for insect protection and they are recommended as a companion plant for vegetable gardens as they draw aphids away.
If you are interested in gathering your own seed to replant in the future, cut flowered stalks and bundle them as you would do with lavender. Hang the bundles upside-down over a light-colored towel or other medium; once the flowers are totally dried, some of the seeds will begin to fall. Use a light crushing motion, rubbing the flowers between your fingertips, to release the rest of the seeds. The photo to the left shows what they will look like for comparison. If you don’t want Calendula showing up everywhere in your garden the following year, it’s recommended that you collect all the dead or dying heads at the end of the growing season, before they spread their seeds naturally.
As you can see by this brief summary, calendula is one of the most amazing herbs found in nature. It’s effective uses have been documented throughout history and there are numerous commercial creams and ointments for sale based on its chemistry. There are likely many more uses that I haven’t included in this piece and I encourage everyone to seek out additional resources for specific recipes and measurements. As always, exercise caution when using herbal remedies to avoid allergic reaction or other health issues.
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