News from the Herb Research Foundation

Herb profile: Calendula

| January/February 2002

  • Photo by Mindy Green

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.

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