In winter, Calendula officinalis rubs shoulders with pansies, petunias and violas on the seedling rack in garden centres. That’s because they are sold as bedding plants – easy growing, colourful and ‘pickable’. Their rightful place is actually on the herb rack. Calendula has serious flower power in its petals! Their key actions or properties according to herbal references are antiseptic, antibacterial, antiviral,antifungal, anti-inflammatory, astringent, detoxifying and mildly oestrogenic. What does that all mean in layman’s language? If you have any fungal infection like athlete’s foot, or minor skin problems (sunburn, rashes, acne), cuts, grazes and scalds, stings, insect bites, bruises, or varicose veins then reach for calendula in ointment form, wash, lotion or tincture. In other words, it’s an excellent first-aid herb for the home. It is also safe to use internally, except by pregnant women because of its mild oestrogenic action, which can cause contractions. For eczema and acne sufferers, drinking an infusion (tea) will help clear the problem, because calendula is a detox herb that treats the toxicity that causes skin disorders. It also cleanses the liver and gallbladder, balances the digestive system, and relieves problems like colitis and gastritis.
How Calendula got its name
The name Calendae is Latin meaning the first day of the month. And because it never stops flowering, calendula has gained the reputation of always being in flower on the first day of every month. The name officinalis indicates that the plant has medicinal uses. Calendula is also known as pot marigold in Europe, and a lot of herbal literature uses the two names interchangeably. Its quite confusing – but they are not talking about the marigolds (Tagetes erecta), which are summer flowers and don’t have medicinal properties.
Calendula is frost-hardy, growing 45 cm high and about 30 cm wide. It has a yellow or orange daisy and the more intense the colour, the higher the level of active ingredients.
They like full sun, and fertile, wellcomposted soil, that drains well. Pinch out the tops to stop the plants becoming straggly, and remove dead flowers to encourage more blooms. For a constant supply of flowers, feed once a month with a liquid fertiliser, specifically for flowers.
If the idea of growing edible flowers appeals to you, mix calendula with dianthus, pansies and violas (Viola wittrockiana or Viola tricolor, commonly known as ‘heartsease’), and English daisies (Bellis perennis). They also look lovely in mixed containers with giant red mustard, tatsoi, Swiss chard, and lettuce. Use the petals to garnish salads, sandwiches and desserts.
Tip: Cut off the bitter white portion at the base of the calendula petal, where it was attached.
Harvesting and preserving
Pick the flowers in the morning when their water content is at its highest. Use only the calendula petals, and then discard the rest of the flower. To dry, put the cut flower heads on brown paper, paper towel or screens in a cool, dry room. Turn the flower heads over every now and then so that they dry evenly. When properly dry, the petals are crisp and fragile, easily falling off the heads. Store the petals in an airtight container or sealed paper bag.
Tip: When making herbal preparations, use less dried material; one measure of dried petals is equivalent to three measures of fresh petals.