Calendula / Marigold
The return and hopeful promise of warmer days each year heralds the reappearance of one of the world’s most popular annual garden herbs of all time: Calendula officinalis. Bearing resemblance to a vibrant, luminously shining sun, Calendula sprouts from the botanical family, Asteraceae. This is perhaps better known as the daisy family, delivering a variety of medicinal plants, among which includes Chamomile, Echinacea, Yarrow and Feverfew to name a few.
Calendula’s flowers (and other daisy family members), are recognisable by their sunray like array of petals surrounding a central solitary, terminal capitula. Calendula is additionally identifiable by its hairy stems forming angular branches, and oblong, spatulate pale green leaves arranged in alternate and sessile fashion. It produces crescent shaped seeds that are ridged and spikey on their back edges. Calendula is not to be mistaken for French Marigold of the Tagetsspecies, which has a more ruffled appearance. This marigold is more commonly grown for simple ornamental and insect attracting value, rather than medicinal qualities, for which Calendula is cultivated on far wider scales.
Calendula is native to Mediterranean countries, however it has been cultivated throughout Europe and South Western Asia. While these days, rarely found growing wild, it is grown both ornamentally and medicinally across the world. The flower heads have always been the most common plant part used for their medicinal properties, although the young leaves, seeds, stems and roots have also been used, each demonstrating possession of medicinal properties.
While medicinal use of Calendula is claimed to have first appeared in written records in the 12th century, there are multiple accounts of it spanning back to much earlier times with ancient Egyptians apparently ascribing it rejuvenating properties. Ancient Romans were also said to have applied it directly to a number of injuries.
The genus name Calendula is a modern Latin diminutive of calendae, meaning a “little calendar”. This is reportedly associated with our ancients noticing that the flowers would bloom with the sun on roughly the first of each month. Calendula’s associations with the rising sun have made it particularly immortal by inspiring various poets to draw references:
The Marigold that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun,
And with him rises weeping.
Shakespeare from The Winter’s Tale;
The Mary-budde that shooteth (shutteth) with the light.
The common name “marigold” is thought to refer to the Virgin Mary, deriving from a former name-sake of ‘Mary’s Gold’. There are reports that this name was bestowed by Hildegard von Bingen, a herbalism-practicing nun in 11th century Germany, who developed a holistic healing system integrating natural medicine treatment with spiritual knowledge and practice. Gaining legendary status, pre-empting her legacy as visionary healer, saint, and author of numerous texts, this resulted from her reckoned ability to hear the voice of God. Since, Calendula has been traditionally displayed in honour of the Virgin Mary during various Catholic events. Hindis similarly ascribed religious sentiments, using the flowers to adorn statues of Gods in their temples. The flowers were strung above doorways to keep out evil, and placed under the bed to provide protection from robbers during sleep. It was also used in this manner to bring about prophetic dreams about thieves when robbed. Carrying Calendula was considered wise when facing legal matters, thought to deliver positive outcomes.
Calendula has been used to colour fabrics, cosmetics and food, and the petals to colour many foods including cheeses and butter. Thus it was coined “the poor man’s saffron”. To this day Calendula remains a mainstay in primary historical European herbal texts.
From traditional folks to science labs
In the seventeen century, Nicholas Culpepper, who was an esteemed botanist claimed Calendula to be a “comforter of the heart”, and capable of raising the spirit. Indeed, Calendula has since been shown to demonstrate cardio-protective benefits. Recent animal studies have demonstrated cardio-protective effects and benefits with reductions in heart rate shown, associated with its ability to modulate the body’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory pathways.
Many other traditional uses have since gained scientific backing, including its application in treating stomach upsets, such as abdominal cramps, and other internal spasmodic conditions including constipation, and in dysmenorrhoea (pre-menstrual cramps). The flowers have been found to contain spasmolytic (spasm dissipating) and spasmogenic (spasm creating) constituents, mediating these activities through calcium channel blocking and cholinergic effects. Further uses have included for fever and enlarged or inflamed lymph nodes; for sebaceous cysts, and a range of other chronic inflammatory conditions. Internally Calendula has been shown to help manage and allay inflammation in the digestive tract, providing anti-ulcerative benefits. This extends to the upper digestive tract where Calendula has demonstrated reducing inflammation of the oral and pharyngeal mucosa.
Another of Calendula’s key traditional uses that has gained a large scientific evidence basis relates to its application in a wide range of skin conditions and complaints. Topical use of Calendula has been approved by Commisson E, an expert German scientific advisory board equivalent to the Food and Drug Administration, responsible for providing scientific approval of substances and products of traditional, folk and herbal medicine origins.
Ulcers, wounds and skin solutions
Calendula’s anti-inflammatory activities have been established in its topical application. This propensity, together with antimicrobial disinfecting of viruses, fungi and bacteria, soothing emmolience, and skin-regenerative properties, provides soothing for sore, itchy and inflamed skin conditions. Calendula therefore presents an ideal candidate for the treatment of a range of wounds and skin issues. Common applications include for rashes such as nappy rash and eczema; bedsores and ulcerous conditions; boils, varicose veins, haemorrhoids, bruises, as well as chapped, dry skin, and healed, yet still sore chilblains and burns. It also assists to address minor infections that predictably ensue. Calendula has additionally shown styptic activities, which can be used on open cuts and wounds to arrest bleeding and promote healing through astringing properties. Calendula also demonstrates being able to help improve skin hydration and firmness.
Calendula helps wounds heal faster, possibly by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the affected area, thereby helping the body to grow new epithelial cells and skin. Ointment containing five per cent Calendula flower extract was shown to improve the metabolism of scar tissue proteins during regeneration. It has established benefits in preventing inflammatory dermatitis in people with breast cancer undergoing radiation. Applied twice daily to the clean feet of diabetic patient with foot injuries was shown to reduce pain and scarring, while improving hair growth. Improved post-amputation healing-processes have also been demonstrated.
*It is worth noting that Calendula should not be applied to fresh burns in the form of oils, as oils act to trap heat. If Calendula oils are all that are available, waiting a few days first for the heat to dissipate is imperative.
Breaking it down to active constituents
Calendula contains a complex range of active phyto-constituents attributable to therapeutic benefits both topically and internally. Chief constituents comprise the phenols. Among the notable ones are essential oils, tannins, alkaloids and glycosides. The glycosides which primarily consist of triterpene saponins, may be responsible for endowing antimicrobial actions. They are primarily composed of antioxidants oleanolic acid and flavonols, including rutin and carotenoids. It is the polyphenol flavonoids that are naturally found in bright red through orange to yellow fruits, vegetables and other plants, which provide Calendula with its brightly coloured petals. They help to defend cells from being damaged by free radicals such as superoxides, and protect liver cells from peroxidation. The free triterpenes were found to confer the most potent anti-inflammatory activity, while the saponins are associated with an ability to lower surface tension (like soap!).
The tannins are an additional polyphenol component, offering astringing, or firming qualities. Calendula also contains alkaloids derived from amino acids and terpenes; and sterols, resins and polysaccharides, producing cellular membrane protection and stability, potentially providing basis for Calendula’s associated immunomodulatory effects. A bitter principle is also present, which stimulates gastric secretions, lending to regulation of blood sugar levels and counteraction of food sensitivities and allergies. Calendula also contains minerals including calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium, copper, iron and manganese.
Further Calendula calls
Calendula has shown ability to lower blood glucose by inhibiting raised glucose levels and delaying gastric emptying in rat models. Its constituents have also revealed potential applications in treatment and prevention of cancer by demonstrating anti-mutagenic and cytotoxic effects on cancer cell lines in vitro (in living cells), and additional anti-cancer activity in vivo (within living organisms). Experimental and clinical trials have further demonstrated anti-oedema, anti-HIV, anti-tumour and counter-irritant activities, with possible applications in liver damage and gall bladder disorders.
In your garden
Growing with the increasing sunshine springtime onwards, and departing by the first frosts, Calendula is propagated from seed and sown directly, lightly into the soil. Germination tends to take around 10 to 14 days. Thin out the young sprouts to 20cm or more to enable Calendula’s leaves and stems to branch out and up to heights of over 40cm. Enjoy the plucked sprouts as a snack. They taste like alfalfa!
Kept free from weeds Calendula will thrive moist soils with minimal care, however it has particular affinity for moist ones. Calendula is sometimes also known as Pot Marigold, possibly characterising the ease with which it can be grown in pots. It flowers most optimally in undraining, sunny spots, although can also flourish in part shade. Calendula may require decent amounts of sun protection in the warmer tropical zones, where it is known to thrive in the winter also.
Calendula produces reasonable amounts of phosphorous, attracts predator insects, and is noted to be an insect repellent when planted with tomatoes and capsicum. These are just a few reasons why Calendula should be included in your garden!
Pluck the petals, or remove the flower heads when in full flower. Harvesting should be undertaken in the morning before it gets too warm, when the resin content in the flowers is reportedly at its highest, and when they morning dew has evaporated. Trim back the stem to the first leaves to prevent rot, and to avoid the less aesthetically pleasing appearance of headless stems.
Do not wash them, but dry them away from sunlight, laying them out in a clean environment on absorbent paper or clean cloth. They are best dried in low temperatures to retain the vibrant colours. Note that the flower heads take a significantly longer time to dry than the petals, which should become dry and crispy like crepe paper very quickly. Turn them over every so often to promote this, and ensure that they are fully dried before storing them in air-tight jars. Protected from light and moisture, they can be kept in storage for up to 3 years. Don’t forget to label them with the date!
Calendula was traditionally used as an ingredient in many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes. Possessing a slightly bitter and pungent taste, Traditional Chinese Medicine ascribed it with energetically cooling properties, with abilities employed to promote blood circulation to the skin and to prevent stagnation.
The vibrant petals can be eaten raw or cooked, and used to help enliven almost any dish, or as a simply garnish. Consider using the fresh petals in salads, or add fresh or dried to soups, stews and broths, baked goods, egg-scrambles and rice dishes. Add the flowers for increased liveliness to conserves, ferments and syrups.
The dried petals and flower heads of the plant can be used in tinctures (alcohol extracts) to manufacture ointments, lotions and creams, or as a tea infusion. For tea, simply pour 1 cup of boiling water per teaspoon or two of the dried florets or petals, and steep for at least 10 minutes. Enjoy up to 3 grams each day in divided doses.
They can also be made into infusions for washes such as skin or eye washes. Simply add a heaped tablespoon or two per 500ml of water, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Bath with a Calendula infusion, or place fresh or dried petals in a stocking or some muslin cloth to use as a compress/poultice for itching or irritated skin conditions.
Create your own Calendula oil infusion by packing the dried flower heads tightly into a jar, and top up with an oil of your choice, matched to the purpose you have in mind. Consider jojoba, olive or sunflower oils. Pop on the lid and place on a sunny window-sill for up to two weeks.
Dyes can be may extracted by gently boiling, producing different hues of yellows, oranges and browns with different mordants. Calendula can also be infused to make a temporary goldening rinse for light coloured hair.
Warnings and cautions
Calendula is generally considered very safe and of low toxicity. However, people with known allergies and hypersensitivity reactions to members of the Asteraceae family should exercise caution. Although extremely rare, a case of anaphylaxis has been recorded, while otherwise sensitisation responses through repeated use has also been reported.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not use Calendula, because in theory, it could potentially interfere with conception due to emmenagogue activities. It may also be considered cautiously by couples trying to conceive.
Herbs can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For this reasons, herbs should always be used with care, and under the supervision of a health care provider. Also, Calendula should not be applied to open wounds without a health practitioner’s supervision.
Some herb for thought
The bright, bold, vibrant warmth of the Calendula flowers provides a sense of being uplifted and energised with warmth. Therefore, Culpepper’s claim about it ability to lift spirits and warm the heart reflects something of an innate truth. Culpepper further drew associations with the sun, and with the astrological profile of Leo. The sun is symbolically thought to represent life and growth, as well as clarity, creativity and happiness; while Leo is associated with the self and ego.
The skin, our largest organ, provides valuable insight into our state of inner health. To achieve vibrant and vital skin we may need to ask ourselves what habits and patterns we are supporting and holding onto that prevent us from realising greater inner and outer wellbeing. They could be emotional, mental or behavioural in nature.
Calendula’s key applications are in inflammatory, aggravatory and stagnant conditions like eczema, acne, varicosities and constipation. It could energetically therefore help us to begin to release those things that are no longer serving us. Meditating in the garden with Calendula may help us to achieve clarity to recognise our holding patterns, and to gain wilful focus, drive and creativity to use our egos in helpful ways to set new better health promoting patterns and behaviours. Calendula may hold some answers regarding how to support our personal growth so that we may come to recognise greater inner and outer health, vitality and happiness.
Happy gardening, growth and vital glowing with Calendula!