Normally I do a spotlight on a specific variety of a plant, but today’s spotlight is on a species of flowering plant that has been grown in gardens for centuries: Calendula officianalis. The cheery orange or yellow blossoms of Calendula are a familiar sight in many gardens, including ours here at Happy Acres. The plants typically grow to about 18-24 inches (45-60 cm) tall. Both the gray-green foliage and the flowers have a sticky feel to them due to the resin content, which is an important part of this plants’ legendary healing properties.
Native to the Mediterranean area, Calendula is an easy to grow plant that is not fussy about soil type or growing conditions. It can be grown in part shade to full sun, and is well suited to container culture – hence the common name “pot marigold.” Though Calendula is not a true marigold (most of which are various Tagetes species), they are both members of the large Asteraceae family, which includes other garden favorites like Coneflowers, Zinnias, Dahlias and Chrysanthemums. The Latin name Calendula refers to the fact that in mild climates it blooms every month of the year, while officianalis means that it is used in the practice of medicine. The flowers are also edible, and attract beneficial insects to your garden.
Calendula is an annual plant that is easily grown from seed. You can sow the seeds in spring directly in the garden or container after the last frost. Or, do like I do and start the seed indoors a couple of weeks before the last frost and set out seedlings when the weather has settled. Gardeners in areas with mild winters can also sow seed in fall. The seed should be sown about 1/4-1/2″ (1 cm) deep, since seeds germinate better without light. If flowers are left to form seeds, the plant will also self-sow quite readily, with volunteers appearing when conditions are favorable for germination.
In our garden the Calendula blooms almost non-stop during the summer and fall. Like many folks, we grow Calendula for its healing and soothing properties. The flower heads have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects that make it an invaluable plant for your personal medicine chest. Calendula also has high amounts of flavenoids, which are anti-oxidants that protect cells from free radicals. The dried petals of Calendula are used in tinctures, salves and washes to treat burns, rashes, cuts and other skin conditions.
The flowers should be harvested often, as letting them go to seed can slow down flower production. Ideally they should be harvested in the morning, after any dew has dried but before the heat of the sun drives out the volatile components. But in reality, any time you can harvest is a good time! Pinching the plants back will encourage bushier growth and more flowers, but our plants seem to produce plenty of flowers without much fuss or pampering on our part. The flowers in the below photo came from our seven plants, and we can count on harvesting that amount every three or four days.
For tinctures, the flowers can be used fresh. Mother Earth Living has an article that discusses how to do that. The flowers can also be soaked in water to make a soothing skin wash for burns or irritated skin. But for infusing in oil, which is our favorite use for them, the flowers need to be thoroughly dried.
We use a dehydrator set at a low temperature to dry ours, but they can also be air-dried. Either way, they need to be dried until they are crisp and no hint of moisture remains. We dry the whole flower heads, though you can also pluck the petals out and dry only them.
Describing how to infuse the flowers in oil warrants a post of its own, so I will be back in a few days and talk about different ways to do that. Until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed this spotlight on a plant that is both lovely to look at and so very useful as well!
To see my other Saturday Spotlights, visit the Variety Spotlights page.