In recent years we’ve heard a lot about the benefits of herbal hotshots such as ginkgo, echinacea, and St. John’s wort, which seem to capture most of the popular limelight. After my delightful experience growing and using calendula (Calendula officinalis) last year, I think it is time to give this lesser-known and perhaps under-appreciated healing plant its fifteen minutes in the spotlight. Calendula has a long history of safe use as both medicine and food, and recent scientific research supports its use for many ailments. As an added bonus, calendula is beautiful and easy to grow in the home garden, even for inexperienced gardeners.
Calendula is believed to have originated in or near the Mediterranean and is now naturalized all over the world. The herb is also known as common marigold or “pot marigold” because the dried flowers were traditionally used in soups and stews to help ward off illness. Don’t confuse Calendula officinalis with the French or African marigolds (Tagetes spp.), commonly planted as ornamental borders and pest deterrents in vegetable gardens. Calendula can be distinguished by its bright, golden orange or yellow flower heads, its sticky calyx, the hairy texture of its leaves, and its height of eighteen inches to two feet.
Calendula is perhaps best known for its effectiveness in healing skin problems such as wounds, burns, insect bites, eczema, skin ulcers, and rashes. It has also been used internally to soothe and heal gastric and duodenal ulcers, as a wash for varicose veins and hemorrhoids, as a rinse for toothaches, and as an eyewash for conditions such as conjunctivitis. In vitro (test tube) research has shown that calendula contains antimicrobial compounds that inhibit certain strains of staphylococcus and candida, as well as E. coli and some protozoa, such as trichomonas. Its wound-healing properties may be attributed to its high content of natural iodine, carotene, and manganese, which promote skin cell regeneration.
As if all of that isn’t enough, experimental in vivo (in the body) research suggests that calendula gently stimulates the immune system and promotes lymphatic drainage, reduces inflammation and pain, lowers cholesterol and triglycerides, and inhibits tumor growth. The bitter green calyx that surrounds the flower head stimulates digestion by increasing bile secretion. Calendula also contains lycopene, which has recently been shown to be beneficial to prostate health.
Growing and using your own
Perhaps one of the best things about this attractive plant is that it is not fussy about soil conditions and can be grown from seed in almost any sunny area, so it’s easy to enjoy the experience of growing your own medicine. To harvest, pick the flowers as they open and spread them to dry in a place that is out of direct sunlight and free from moisture. Store the dried flowers in jars and use as needed. Calendula reseeds easily, so at the end of the growing season simply leave some of the flowers on the plants to form seed heads. Scatter the dried seeds wherever you would like to see calendula pop up next spring.
To make a simple skin oil, place a handful of dried calendula flower heads or petals in a glass jar and add enough oil (such as sweet almond or apricot kernel oil) to completely cover the plant material. Seal the jar and allow it to infuse for four to eight weeks, shaking daily. When the oil is golden, strain it and store the oil in a dark bottle in a cool, dark place. (Keeping the oil in the refrigerator will help extend its life.) Use this oil freely for any skin condition, or add some melted beeswax and a few drops of tea tree or lavender essential oil to make a healing and soothing salve.
To use internally, make a tea from the dried flowers using 3 to 4 flower heads per cup of boiling water—be sure to remove the bitter green calyx. For a soothing bath, make a strong tea by bringing 3 cups of water to a boil. Add 12 to 15 flower heads, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain and add the liquid to your bath. If you’re not inclined to make your own medicines, you’ll find a variety of products containing calendula at your local health-food store.
Wilderness medicine seminar in Big Sky
Wilderness medicine seminars are among the most interesting continuing medical education opportunities available to physicians. “Wilderness Medicine 2001,” held in August 2001 at the Big Sky Resort in Montana, was no exception. This is one of my favorite medical continuing-education courses. The physicians, nurses, emergency medical technicians, and others who attend these seminars tend to be adventurers and world travelers. They have also always impressed me as being more open-minded and progressive than attendees at nearly any other medical gathering, perhaps because they’re accustomed to improvising and looking beyond their medical school training. Because they’re travelers, they’re usually more aware of the wide diversity of medical systems outside of the American model.
This year’s Wilderness Medicine program included a wide variety of topics: kayak and climbing rescue, high-altitude medicine, backcountry survival, wilderness perils—from poison ivy to poisonous snakes—and, of course, herbs that can help with adventure-related ailments, from jet lag to altitude sickness. My presentation “Herbs for International Travel and First Aid” gave attendees research-based information on the use of echinacea and other immune stimulants for boosting immune response during travel and the adjustment through jet lag, as well as for preventing immune suppression induced by intense exercise. I also covered the research supporting the use of ginkgo for preventing and treating altitude sickness, ginger for preventing and treating motion sickness, ginseng for enhancing performance and endurance, herbs for wounds and other skin problems, and other first-aid applications for herbs.
Attendees at this seminar seem more aware than most of the need for preventive medicines, which have never been a strong suit in the conventional American medical system. I like to ask doctors to name all the preventive medicines available without a prescription. So far, I’ve come up with only five: sunscreen, fluoride toothpaste, motion sickness pills, aspirin for preventing heart attacks, and the formerly prescription ulcer medications now repositioned as indigestion preventives. These doctors are interested in herbs that can protect their health from more than sunburn and tooth decay as they travel into challenging conditions.
JAMA criticizes herbs for surgical patients
No one has ever accused the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of being overly objective about the topic of alternative medicine. The article “Herbal Medicines and Perioperative Care,” which appeared in the July 11, 2001, issue of JAMA, was no exception. The article speculates on potential problems that could arise for surgical patients using common herbal dietary supplements, including ginkgo, St. John’s wort, garlic, ginseng, echinacea, kava, and others. However, the authors discredit themselves by making sweeping generalizations and warnings based on minimal evidence and outright speculation.
For example, the authors make warnings about the use of garlic supplements for surgery patients based on a single case that did not even involve the use of garlic supplements, but rather extreme consumption of a food. One elderly man ate 15 grams of raw garlic—or about five medium-sized cloves—per day for an extended period of time, and subsequently experienced bleeding problems during surgery, possibly but not necessarily connected with the garlic. This one incident, more than a decade old, is the only case on record that supports the authors’ argument against garlic. The JAMA article warns against using ginseng before surgery because of its blood sugar lowering effects, based on a flawed study that failed to account for the sugar content of ginseng itself. The authors also advise patients not to use echinacea around the time of surgery, but offer no evidence to support that recommendation.
In short, it is hard to understand how an article that runs from single case report to flawed study to no evidence at all was accepted for publication in a widely read, peer-reviewed medical journal.