CalendulaSusan Belsinger July 1, 2014
Luscious Golden Petals Have Powerful Healing Properties
Calendula officinalis, also known as Pot marigold or Poet’s marigold, has a longstanding place in history for its medicinal value and infusive properties. Since antiquity, calendula flowers have been used for many maladies: by the Egyptians who applied strong infusions to heal wounds (anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial); through the Middle Ages where it was used for indigestion and healing bruises and burns; to World War I where it was used on the injured to treat inflammation and prevent infection (immunostimulant, antifungal, antiviral).
Annie Burnham Carter notes in In An Herb Garden, “In England during that war, Miss Gertrude Jekyll gave a field on her estate for the exclusive cultivation of pot marigolds and the flowers which bloomed there were sent in great quantities to France to be used in dressings for the wounded.”
Historically, calendula was used as a restorative for the eyes – as an ingredient in eye balm, it works to reduce redness and soothe sensitive skin. And herbalist Nicholas Culpeper claimed that calendula strengthened the heart and spirit – he used the infusion as an expulsive to expel malignant and pestilential qualities.
In 1699, Stevens stated in The Countrie Farme that marigolds were used as “a remedy for headache, toothache, jaundice, red eyes, and ague.” He also noted that, “The yellow leaves (petals) of the flowers are dried and kept throughout Dutchland against winter to put into broths, physicall potions and for divers other purposes, in such quantity that in some Grocers or spicesellers are to be found barrels filled with them and retailed by the penny or less, insomuch that no broths are well made without dried Marigold.”
The flavour of calendula flower petals is quite mild – herbal, a bit sweet not very bitter – rather unobtrusive. When I made an infusion of the petals and inhaled the perfume it reminded me of a mild herb tea. After steeping a bit longer it had the same aroma as the leftover cooking liquid when I roast winter squash or pumpkin with an inch or so of water in the oven. This makes sense since calendula contains carotene, which is also found in orange vegetables like carrots and winter squash. Mild, vegetable-sweet, a little woody – what’s not to like?
It seems to me that calendula flowers can be used culinarily in both savoury and sweet dishes. In the past, this herb was used predominantly to flavour and colour broths, hence the name “pot marigold.” The dried petals have been used as a poor man’s substitute for saffron for both colour and taste. It was brought to America and used by the colonists to colour butter and cheese. Even Frank Perdue advertises that he feeds calendula petals to his chickens so that the birds have an appealing golden yellow colour to them.
I use the fresh or dried flower petals with milk to make custards and puddings; in herb butters and cream cheese for their bright yellow-orange colour; in batters for cakes, bread, and cornbread for colour and mild flavour; with grains like rice or couscous; in mild-mannered soups. I like the petals best in all sorts of vegetable salads and in egg salad and deviled eggs. Note that the fresh petals are just a little tough, and the dried petals, even when infused, are still a bit chewy; you may want to chop or puree them before adding them to a recipe.
Although I do use these petals of gold in the kitchen, I use them more often in recipes that I don’t eat. The golden yellow infusion, long used as a healing compress and as a dye, is also good as a facial cleanser and as a hair rinse for blondes. Besides infusions, calendula oil, salve, and tincture are where most of my flower petals are used.
For these preparations, I tend to use dried petals. Just about every other day during the summer, I go out and harvest the blooms from the flowers that have bloomed the day before. I bring them inside and remove the petals from the center disk (this tastes very bitter and I don’t use it). I have a small baking pan that I keep in my smaller oven and I sprinkle the petals in the pan, occasionally fluffing the ones that are already there, and put them in the oven to dry. Every week or two, I put the dried petals into a dark brown glass jar stored away from light and heat. Then they are ready for my herbal preparations when I need them.
Calendula extract or tincture is used as a gargle for sores in the mouth and inflammations of the mouth, throat, and nose; toothpaste with the extract is now being marketed. This herb also eases digestive disorders such as colitis, peptic ulcers and gastritis. Calendula is also a cleansing and detoxifying herb, good for ailments of the liver and gallbladder. Due to its concentration of carotenoids, calendula flowers are antioxidants.
According to Steven Foster in Herbal Renaissance, “Herbalists consider single-flowered varieties to be medicinal; however, this notion has not stood up to scientific scrutiny in other members of the aster family.” When I talked to Steven, he told me, “Trust your nose and your intuition.” From experience I have found that these golden petals are easy and rewarding to grow, flavourful in the kitchen, and full of medicinal virtues.
Golden Vegetable Stock
This is probably one of the oldest ways that calendula was used in cooking – thrown into the soup pot – hence the name pot marigold. You can vary this with any vegetables that you might have on hand. For instance, if I’m making mushroom soup, I might add more mushrooms. If I have leftover cabbage, I might add it. If I’m making winter squash or sweet potato soup, I would add the peelings or skins. I also change the herbs in the bouquet garni, depending upon what kind of soup I am making. The calendula petals will make the stock a golden colour whether used fresh or dried. (Makes 2-1/2 quarts)
- 2 carrots
- 1 turnip
- 1 medium onion
- 1 potato
- 1 medium celery rib
- 4 or 5 mushrooms
- 1 ripe tomato (optional)
- 3 quarts water
- large handful of fresh calendula petals or medium handful of dried calendula petals
- a bouquet garni made of: 1 bay leaf, 3 or 4 thyme sprigs or 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 6 to 8 parsley sprigs, 1 garlic clove, and 6 to 8 peppercorns
- Scrub the vegetables well. Chop them roughly and put them in a stockpot. Add the water and salt the stock lightly. Add the calendula petals and make a bouquet garni and add it to the pot. Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
- Simmer for 30 minutes, skimming the stock occasionally. Cool the stock for an hour in the pan, then strain.
Calendula Flower Salad
The flowers, herbs, and greens in this salad will vary depending upon what’s in season – experiment and substitute whatever appeals to you. If the pansies seem too large, separate their petals and scatter them over the salad. (Serves 8.)
- About 8 cups of salad greens (baby lettuces, mache, chicory, endive, rocket, watercress, or spinach)
- About 2 cups of assorted edible flowers (calendula petals, chervil, chive, coriander flowers, johnny jump-ups, pansies)
- 1 to 2 Tbsp tiny new mint or lemon balm leaves
- 2 to 3 Tbsp dill of fennel sprigs
- 2 Tbsp freshly snipped chives
- 1/2 cup good quality olive oil
- 2 to 3 tablespoons balsamic, tarragon, or herb vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Wash the salad greens well and pat or spin them dry. If the leaves are large, tear them into large bite-sized pieces. Wash the herbs and pat them dry. Gently rinse the flowers and pat them dry.
- In a small bowl, combine the oil and vinegar with a fork, and season with salt and pepper.
- Arrange the greens on a serving platter and scatter the herbs over them. Place the flowers decoratively on top. Stir the vinaigrette well and drizzle about half of it over the salad. Toss gently, add more vinaigrette if necessary, and serve immediately.
Although calendulas can stand on their own in a vinegar here are a few choices of herbs that combine well with them: basil, chives, lemon herbs, marjoram and thyme. Bright-coloured petals make colourful vinegars. If you use the apple cider vinegar the colour won’t be as pretty, but it will still taste good. (Makes 1 pint.)
- 1 pint white wine-, rice wine-, or apple cider vinegar
- About 1-1/2 cups loosely packed calendula petals and other herbs if desired
- Harvest your flowers and herbs on a sunny morning, rinse them if necessary and pat dry. Bruise them slightly. Fill a clean jar about 1/2 to 3/4 full of the flowers and herbs you have chosen and cover them with vinegar. Use plastic rather than metal lids, or before you screw on the lid, cover the mouth of the jar with plastic wrap. (The plastic wrap fix is for the short term only. Eventually the acid of the vinegar leaches out and corrodes metal lids, so we recommend buying the plastic lids to fit the canning jars.) Label jars.
- Place the jar in a cool, dark place. When you begin steeping herbs in vinegar in the morning, it can be used that evening since it will begin flavouring the vinegar immediately. The longer it stands, the more flavour it will have. At a certain point, it will begin to change taste. The flowers and herbs will deteriorate and the flavour will not be as bright. A general rule of thumb for infusion is about 2 to 4 weeks. I recommend that you taste your vinegar in about 10 days to 2 weeks time and see if you are happy with the flavour; taste every few days or once a week thereafter until you have achieved the flavour that you are seeking.
- After the allotted time the flowers and herbs will need to be removed from the vinegar. Open the jar, and pour the vinegar through a strainer to remove the herbs. Using a funnel, pour the vinegar into smaller bottles and label. Store the vinegar in a cool, dark place and use within a year.
In the Garden
This sunny-bright annual is easily grown from seed, which can be sown indoors 4 to 6 weeks before planting outdoors, or can be sown directly into the garden earth about 10 inches apart. Pot marigolds grow well in pots or flower beds and make a long-lasting cut flower. In my zone 7 garden they start to flower in mid-to-late May and continue through until frost in October. Some catalogues describe them as cool season annuals and supposedly blooms are bigger when grown in a cool season. In hotter zones, calendulas suffer from too much heat and stop flowering; Art Tucker and Tom Debaggio (Big Book of Herbs) recommend planting in part shade with moist soil as a counterbalance to the heat. Some companies offer heat-resistant cultivars.
In Susanne Fischer-Rizzi’s Complete Earth Medicine Handbook, she hints: “If you let a few plants mature and self-seed, you will see many small calendula plants grow at that spot the following year. And, because the evaporation of its roots can kill parasitic worms, calendula is a good companion for roses and carrots, and will strengthen and protect them from pests.”
The name Calendula is said to come from the Latin word calends or calendae, named by the Romans who noted that these herbs seemed to bloom on the first day of every month. Elder English poets referred to this plant as “Mary Golde” or “Mary Gowles” since the plant was associated with both the Virgin Mary and Queen Mary (her emblem). “Flower of the Dead” is also another name for calendulas, which were planted in burial grounds.
On the Skin
Calendula is wonderfully soothing to the skin and since it is anti-inflammatory, astringent, and anti-microbial it can be used to heal wounds, cut, scrapes, rashes, bee stings, sunburn, burns, and bruises. The plant contains large amounts of iodine and manganese, as well as carotene, and all of these attributes promote the regeneration of skin cells. Calendula is mild enough that it is used in salves and ointments for diaper rash on babies, stretch marks on pregnant women, and for creams for nursing mothers. As always, there are individuals who are susceptible to an allergic reaction – so if you have allergies to ragweed or any daisy-like blooms – proceed with caution, do a patch test, or consult your health care practitioner.
This article is adapted from a longer version published by Susan Belsinger on her website: www.susanbelsinger.com
Susan Belsinger teaches, lectures, and writes about gardening and cooking, and is a food writer, editor and photographer who has authored and edited over 25 books and hundreds of articles. Recently referred to as a “flavour artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy – the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices – to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. Susan was the Otto Richter Award recipient in 2009 and received the IHA award for Outstanding Contributions to the Herb Industry in 2004. Currently, she blogs for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com Her latest publication is The Herbal Calendar 2014 by Tide-Mark Publications, which features IHA’s Herbs of the Year™. Susan’s photos, text and recipes, and the 2015 Herbal Calendar are available at: www.susanbelsinger.com