Herb to Know: Calendula

| June/July 2007

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) has been a garden staple for centuries, thanks to its springy blossoms and skin-soothing abilities. Its yellow and orange flowers and tangy, aromatic scent are a cheerful addition to any outdoor environment. It also has enjoyed popularity inside the home: The freshly crushed flowers and bruised leaves—rich in natural iodine, manganese and carotene—delight the taste buds and can be used to color butter, cheese, custards and sauces. The herb brings a tangy flavor to soups and salad dishes as a substitute for saffron, and can be added to vegetable soups and stews to ward off illness, earning it the name pot marigold.

However, calendula is best known for healing wounds, which has made it popular throughout history as a remedy for many skin conditions and ailments. Ancient Egyptians extracted the sap from the plant’s stem and used it to heal wounds and promote healthy skin growth. The Romans mixed the leaves with vinegar and the blossoms in wine as a treatment for indigestion. The Mayans washed their hands and faces with a tea of flowers and leaves to soothe and heal skin irritations. Twelfth-century herbalist Aemilius Macers believed this plant outranked all other herbs as a soothing and healing ointment for burns and bruises.

In Colonial times, calendula was used as an anti-inflammatory to reduce swelling and heal bruises that originated under the skin. Because the herb treated burns and open wounds, physicians preserved the juice from aerial parts of the plant with a small amount of alcohol and used the mixture on the battlefield during the American Civil War. World War I battlefield doctors poured boiling water over dried flower heads and applied the mixture to soldiers’ wounds to prevent infection and inflammation.

To treat a scald or burn, steep the fresh petals from one blossom in a cup of boiling water and cover for 5 minutes. Let the mixture cool to room temperature, then strain and pour it onto a clean cloth. Place the compress over the affected area.

Calendula belongs to the Asteraceae. Its name comes from the Latin calendae, meaning "first day of the month," because it flowers during the first days of most months of the year. This Mediterranean native annual will survive until the first frost, and it produces single-flowered, yellow to deep golden-orange daisy-like blossoms that open flat by day and close again in the evening. It has two or three rows of flat rays surrounding a brownish center made up of tiny florets.

Calendula prefers loamy soil and full sun, and it will grow from seeds planted in a sunny place. To sow seeds directly, plant them about ¼ inch deep in early spring. Apply two handfuls of bone meal two to three weeks before you start sowing. Harvest the leaves and petals during the summer for a continuous supply for your kitchen and your homemade treatments.

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