Calendula, Herb of the Year 2008

Madeline Wajda
Adams County Master Gardener

National Herb Week this year (May 4-11) will be celebrating the Herb of the Year, Calendula. Known to many as "pot marigold," calendula is in fact a member of the aster family (Asteraceae) and not at all related to common French and African marigolds (Tagetes). The name calendula comes from the Latin calendae, or the first day of the month, probably alluding to the year-round flowering of the plant in mild climates. "Marigold" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for marsh marigold, although it later became associated with the Virgin Mary in Christian tradition. The name "pot marigold" may have derived from "poet's marigold" (Shakespeare wrote in The Winter's Tale: "The Marigold that goes to bed with the sun/ And with him rises weeping.") However, the name may also refer to the plant's use as a kitchen herb (in the pot).

Calendula is native to the area around the Mediterranean, where it was able to be harvested nearly year-round. By medieval times, it was being grown in England where it appeared frequently in the meals of Henry VIII; it reached its greatest popularity in Elizabethan England. Brought to the United States by the early settlers (before 1670), calendula became an essential element in American herb, apothecary, and kitchen gardens, for its color in culinary dishes as well as its skin-healing, antiseptic and antifungal qualities. Calendula flower conserve (very much like jam) was kept on shelves in colonial America as a heart medicine. Its use was quickly incorporated into American Indian remedies.

During the Civil War, its antibacterial actions made it a major medicine for treating wounds and amputations. During World War I, in England, Gertrude Jekyll gave over a field on her estate to cultivating only calendulas to be sent to France to be used in dressings for the wounded.

In this area, calendula is a hardy annual and can grow 8-20 inches high. Seedlings can withstand a minor frost. Plants can be easily started from seeds 4-6 weeks before the last frost, or sown directly in the garden about 9-12 inches apart when the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees. The soil should be moist but well drained with a pH of about 6.0 and in full sun. Calendula flowers (single or double blossoms in shades from cream to yellow or orange to apricot sometimes tipped with red and 1-3 inches across) generally from May until frost. Seeds ripen in late summer, and plants often reseed themselves.

Fertilizers with an N-P-K ratio of 1-2-1 are recommended for flower production. It is best to water plants from the bottom, as they are somewhat susceptible to mildew. Flowers open in sunlight and close at night; they attract various butterflies like Sulphurs, Swallowtails, and Skippers.

Petals of calendula can be used fresh or dried. They can be dried on paper, in an unheated oven, or in a dehydrator. Calendula is widely used in hair rinses, skin care creams, soaps and first-aid remedies, as well as a natural dye. Petals can be used to garnish any dish as well as in teas, egg salad, corn bread, salads, cheese balls, rice or in an herb butter. To make an herb butter, combine about 1 Tbsp. of chopped calendula petals with about 2 Tbsps. of most any herb (marjoram or chives, for example), and add to a stick of butter or margarine with tsp. of lemon juice. This butter will keep well in the refrigerator for about a week or in the freezer for several months; it is very tasty on corn-on-the-cob or other vegetable dishes.

Calendula is a good companion plant for tomatoes and other herbs and works well in containers. It also makes a beautiful border plant where, according to one of many legends and folk tales about this beautiful flower, it affords protection against darkness, the symbol of ignorance and evil. What more can anyone ask?

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