Herb of the month: Calendula

Last update: 17.10.17 First posted: 17.10.17 by in

After a break in September, I am back with one of my favourite herbs: calendula. These sunny flowers are still holding on in the apothecary garden – and, incredibly, in my cobbled yard as well – as the nights draw in and the weather gets colder.

Calendula Officinalis is the common marigold – not to be confused with the French marigold, Tagetes, which has its own different uses. The name ‘calendula’ derives from the same root as ‘calendar’. The flowers are said to bloom every month of the year, and although that’s a tall order up here in Calderdale, the self-seeded marigold in our back yard is still putting on a glorious show.

In the apothecary garden, you can find calendula in the skincare bed, and a few extra plants in amongst the lavender to keep things colourful while we’re replanting. In fact, this amazingly healing plant could make a case for being almost anywhere in the apothecary garden: it’s anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, antibacterial, anti-spasmodic (good for cramps), it stimulates the immune system, and it aids digestion. But it is most well-known for soothing sensitive skin, and for healing cuts and grazes. Calendula promotes the growth of healthy skin to heal over a cut, while its anti-inflammatory properties soothe any redness and swelling, and its antibacterial properties help to prevent infection.

One lovely way to harness the healing powers of calendula is to infuse its flowers in an oil. It is best to use dried flowers for this; if you pick fresh flowers, leave them until they have wilted a little, to reduce the water content. Lightly fill a clean, dry jar with the flowers, and pour your chosen oil over the top: almond oil will give you a lovely base for making a face cream, and plain good-quality olive or sunflower oil from the kitchen are absolutely fine. Make sure the oil has completely covered all the plant material, then seal the jar and leave it on a sunny windowsill, or in a warm cupboard, to infuse. After four weeks it will be ready for you to strain off the flowers and bottle for use. If you want to make a salve, melt 10g of wax in a bain-marie (I use beeswax, but candelilla wax is good for vegans) and mix with 90ml of calendula-infused oil, stirring consistently, then pour into a jar to set. You can use your calendula oil or salve to soothe and heal any irritated or broken skin. It really does work wonders.

Some of you probably know these flowers as pot marigolds, named for kitchen pots (not plant pots, which is what I used to think!) because calendula petals used to be a common ingredient in soups and stews. They have only a very faintly bitter flavour, but a gorgeous colour, which once upon a time was used to make cheese look yellower. According to Culpeper, eating the flowers in a broth, or drinking them in a tea, is uplifting and supportive to the heart and spirit: real comfort food. This makes perfect sense to me: calendula is sunshine in a flower. One of my happiest memories is harvesting calendula at the Organic Herb Trading Company one summer, several years ago: enough flowers to fill several crates. I took a photograph to try and capture how incredibly vibrant and bright they were. Looking at the photograph still makes me happy. Winter can be dark and dreary at the bottom of such a steep valley, but it’s the perfect excuse to add a sprinkling of these golden flowers to a delicious soup or stew, to let a little sunshine in.

Sources:

Bartram, Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine
Grieve, A Modern Herbal

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