Calendula 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 has been used medicinally for centuries to heal wounds, burns and rashes, both internally and externally. The sunshiny flowers have also been used traditionally to support the immune system and lift the spirits.
Calendula in the Garden
Growing calendula is 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 grows well in trays; plant early in the greenhouse to get a head start on the season.
Calendula will thrive in just about any soil, but like most plants, it prefers to have soil that is not overly dry or wet. It will flower more profusely in full sun, but can tolerate a little shade. If you live in the subtropics or tropics, plant calendula in the fall and grow it as a winter annual. A little afternoon shade will prolong its growing season in the spring. Here in the southern Appalachians, I direct sow the seeds 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. Calendula will self-sow if you don’t mulch heavily. True to its common name, pot marigold thrives in containers, and is quite companionable with ornamental greens, such as rainbow Swiss chard, purple mustard, and red lettuces.
The flowers need to be picked every two to three days to promote and prolong the flowering season. If you let the plants go to seed, they will stop making new flowers. 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 properties, and is a good indicator of a particular variety’s medicinal strength. 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). Calendula is sometimes sold as “petals”, which is inferior medicinally to the whole flower head, as it lacks the resinous bracts. The “petals” are actually ray florets, which are miniature flowers unto themselves. I will simply refer to the ray florets as petals from here on out—please forgive my botanical transgression, which is solely perpetrated for the sake of easy reading. If you are purchasing calendula, make sure it has the green base of the flower head and the petals are a bright yellow or orange color –another good barometer of its freshness and medicinal quality.
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. It is a good producer, and versatile, in that it produces plenty of edible florets, and the whole flowers are good medicinally. The flowers are bigger than the popular medicinal variety ‘resina’, and in my trials, just as resinous.
Calendula as Medicine
Calendula’s claim to notoriety, like many human celebrities, has much to do with bottoms. Calendula is the premier herb in herbal diaper ointments. It is widely used in this capacity because of its soothing anti-inflammatory and vulnerary (tissue healing) qualities. Calendula is an external remedy for practically every manner of skin complaints: rashes, stings, wounds, burns, sunburns, abrasions, swellings, eczema, acne, etc…
I always keep calendula oil stocked in my refrigerator and frequently 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 violet, plantain and yarrow leaves, and applied it daily. She had quite the outbreak and doesn’t even have one scar, thanks to this herbal poultice.
The cheery flower also has many internal uses, and is a wonderful digestive ally. Calendula tea is commonly used to help ease peptic ulcers, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), and inflammatory bowel disease. It is also outstanding for stimulating stagnation in the lymphatic system, and is used to treat acute or chronically swollen lymph nodes.
Botanical Name: Calendula officinalis
Other common names: Pot Marigold, Garden Marigold
This post is an excerpt from Juliet Blankespoor’s forthcoming book – Cultivating Medicinal Herbs – A guidebook to growing healing plants in the home garden, slated to release this summer. This innovative and vibrant reference is more than a guide to growing herbs — it also covers medicine making, wild foods, edible flowers, and detailed medicinal uses. With over 350 full-color pages, brimming with scrumptious recipes and extensive accounts on propagation, cultivation, and harvesting, it is sure to inspire the seasoned gardener and novice alike. This extensive resource is the companion guide to her upcoming distance-learning course on Cultivating Medicinal Herbs, offered through the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. To receive updates on the release of the book and course, sign up for her newsletter on www.chestnutherbs.com