Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
by Krystal Thompson
Common Names: Marigold or Pot Marigold, most commonly. Not to be confused with true Marigolds which are toxic. Also Golds, Ruddes, Marybud, Gold-bloom.
Description/Taxonomy: Calendula is an herbaceous aromatic in the Asteraceae family that grows to a height of just under three feet with sparsely branched lax or erect resinous and fragrant stems. The leaves are roughly 2-7 inches in length, oblong-lanceolate, fuzzy on both sides, and with occasionally waved or toothed margins. Calendula seeds are odd-looking, like thorny dried up worms or spiked boomerangs! The beautiful daisy-like flowers range in color from bright yellow, gold, and deep orange, and will bloom continuously through the first frost.
History and Ethnobotany: The name calendula comes from the Latin word kalendae, meaning “the first” because it tends to bloom in accordance with the calendar: either at the first of summer months or during the new moon. The latter eventually led it to be a symbol of the Roman calendar, noting the beginning of each lunar phase (2). In medieval England, the later name marigold came from “Mary’s Gold,” after the belief that the Virgin Mary wore the blossoms ornamentally.
There is quite a lot of fun folklore attached to this plant. Reportedly, the French believed that if you stared at calendula blooms for a few moments every day that one’s eyesight would improve. Garlands of the flowers were hung from door handles to protect from evil energies and infectious diseases (there’s certainly some truth to the latter), and were also sometimes strewn about under beds to protect people while sleeping.
Historically, it seems that calendula was sought as much for culinary use as for medicinal. According to Stevens in his 1699 book Maison Rustique, or the Countrie Farme: the yellow leaves of the flowers were “dried across Dutchland against winter to put into broths… in such quantity that in some grocers or spice-sellers were to be found barrels filled with them and retailed by the penny or less, insomuch that no broths were well made without dried marigold.” The vibrant yellow flowers were also quite common as a natural dye for hair, cheese, and fabrics. Natural plant dyeing seems to be making a resurgence in the DIY circuit as of late, and using botanicals like calendula to naturally dye clothing and yarn is both common and celebrated in the current Pacific Northwest fashion community.
Calendula’s first documented cultivation is thought to be by St. Hildegard of Bingen, an 11th century nun and practicing herbalist in what is now Germany (2). Calendula was first brought to the United States by early colonists who believed the plant would protect them from native witchcraft in addition to physical ailments.
Parts Used: Flowers and leaves.
Cultivation and Harvest: Calendula is native to southern Europe, but grows successfully and is cultivated in the Mediterranean, Balkans, eastern Europe, Germany, India, Poland, and Hungary. Small amounts are grown in North America, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand (2). Other than significant sun exposure and diligent weeding, calendula is not particularly picky about its environment and for this reason is considered one of the easiest garden flowers to cultivate. The plants do well when given nine to ten inches between one another and will flower from May or June to the first frost. The ideal time to harvest the flowers is in the heat of the summer day when the resins are high and the morning dew has evaporated (2).
Calendula blooms should be dried in warm, ambient temperatures. To prevent moisture build up and protect the flowers’ natural vibrant hues, it is crucial to ensure that the blooms are spread out evenly and each have enough room to dry without touching their neighbors. Calendula seeds ripen in August and September and will scatter freely if permitted to spawn new young plants in the spring.
Herbal Actions: Alterative, Antispasmodic, Astringent, Cholagogue, Diaphoretic, Emmenagogue, Hepatic, Lymphatic, Stimulant, Vulnerary.
Constituents: Over thirty compounds have been identified in calendula, including: triterpene glycosides and aglycones, carotenoids, essential oils, resin, sterols, flavonoids (such as rutin and quercetin), and calendic acid (2).
Energetics: Ayurveda: cooling, bitter, pungent. TCM (called Jin Zhan Ju): neutral and drying. Calendula is astrologically associated with the sun and fire element, which to me highlights its energetic ability to battle stagnation and catalyze or fan inner fires such as the digestive or lymphatic. According to Julia Graves in communication with Wood, calendula also “stimulates upana vayu,” the downward bearing wind that is the life force of the pelvic region (8).
Meridians/Organs Affected: Liver, heart, lungs, skin.
Medicinal Use: Ah, where to start! Calendula is such an excellent medicine; indicated for so many instances of varying intensities. Let’s begin with topical or external applications, as these are perhaps the most familiar for this plant, though not simple in the least! Topically, calendula is primarily used as a local remedy, meaning it is applied directly to small or specific areas. My own experience here is in using a sore muscle salve that I make with calendula and arnica infused carrier oils. Though muscle pain and inflammation is an internal issue, this calendula salve works quickly and efficiently when applied directly to problematic areas.
Another topical indication for calendula is as a response to the pain and swelling of a wasp or bee sting. In this case it is actually suggested to rub the flower directly onto the wound (1), though I imagine a calendula salve or hydrosol would also be effective. Calendula hydrosol is common in facial care products and is a useful remedy during allergy (or eye doctor) season for inflamed or sore eyes. It is also well suited for rashes, burns, sunburns, abrasions, swellings, eczema, acne, surgical wounds, scrapes, chicken pox, and herpes sores (3). Calendula is also a great plant to have on hand for topical post care, as it does wonders at preventing scar tissue. A beautiful kitchen sink of indications! Calendula can be mixed with vinegar as a rinse for skin and hair; no doubt this would be an excellent application for topical fungal issues or scalp buildup.
Calendula can be used topically for soothing nipples that are cracked from breastfeeding; it is safe for both mom and baby (8). Calendula is also a great ally for general oral health: an infusion of the flowers is an excellent base for an herbal mouthwash. It is also used as a gargle for sore throats, periodontal disease, thrush, and sore or bleeding gums (3).
Internally, calendula’s benefits are just as colored and varied. It is useful in cases of chronic ulcers and varicose veins, and according to A Modern Herbal “was considered formerly” to have much value as an aperient and detergent in jaundice. I’m not sure why this is listed as a former consideration as this indication makes a lot of sense to me in the present, but alas. Calendula infusion is beneficial for fevers as it is a gentle diaphoretic and “throws out any eruption” (1). A decoction of the flowers was also historically used to “bring out” smallpox, measles, and various children’s ailments. It is still commonly indicated to eruptive diseases of this nature.
A great female ally, calendula can help delayed menstruation and soothe painful periods due to its anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties. It can generally be considered a menstrual tonic or a “normalizer” of the menstrual process (4). Further, calendula is an excellent choice for vaginitis: various inflammatory conditions that are typically accompanied by an infection, itching, irritation, and/or abnormal discharge. Almost all vaginitis symptoms are caused by over-populations of bacteria or yeast, or an STD known as trichomoniasis (7). Calendula is a non-irritating vulnerary that promotes wound healing and stimulates healthy tissue regeneration, as well as an antifungal powerhouse that sports a dash of antibacterial properties: the perfect storm for responding to the various manifestations of vaginitis. A wash of calendula can be used topically for many vaginal complaints including but not limited to endometritis, vaginal abrasions, gonorrhea, and discharge. It is also specifically indicated to conditions where there is dampness in the wounds or tissues, again highlighting many of the vaginal indications in addition to thrush and swollen lymph, which we’ll explore later in the monograph. For sensitive vaginal indications, herbalist Aviva Romm suggests calendula flowers prepared in a sitz bath or peri-rinse.
Calendula is a powerful lymphatic for both acute and chronic cases. Respiratory and localized infections, tonsilitis, and swollen lymph nodes all benefit from its use. It can also be used as an immune tonic to battle and prevent infections by stimulating the lymphatic system. Lymphatic fluid is responsible for supplying the cells with nutrition, cleaning up metabolic waste, and acting as the “field” for where our immune battles happen. Though lymphatic fluid travels with the blood, lymphatic fluid is not pumped but rather circulated by physical activity. Inactivity impairs lymphatic flow, so calendula is well indicated to injuries or conditions that cause a person to be lethargic or forces them to take bed rest. This lymphatic stimulation and cleanup also helps to rid the body of debris that results from joint trauma, and can help resolve any swelling that may arise (6).
In a 2005 article, American herbalist Paul Bergner listed calendula (among others such as ginseng, reishi, astragalus, etc) as a plant that enhances the response of our cells’ “toll-like receptors” or TLR. TLR are specialized receptors that are present on the membranes of immune cells. Their job is to detect specific chemicals that are signs of the presence of organisms such as viruses, certain bacteria, and fungi. Research shows that the polysaccharides found in calendula and other TLR-activating plants trigger the expression and activity of TLR, essentially both widening and strengthening the immune system’s “search and destroy” mechanisms. Calendula is a crucial ally in antiviral and antifungal host defense, and therefore is commonly indicated in thrush and recurrent topical and internal fungal infections.
Similarly to the use in ulcers, calendula also benefits inflammatory bowel syndromes and internal inflammation from infection or irritation (3). Its bitter properties make it a general digestive ally, and could be used as a tonic for soothing long-term intestinal distress or digestive upset. In addition to soothing symptoms, calendula would also begin to repair damaged tissues in these cases.
Allies: Calendula is well paired with arnica for muscle pain and topical injuries, though unlike its high-desert friend it can be used on open wounds. In the case of poorly healing wounds it is well paired with echinacea and gotu kola: an herbal fruit punch of tissue healing and cleaning properties. It is also beneficially paired with licorice, slippery elm, and meadowsweet for cases of gastroesophegal disease or discomfort (3). Appalachian herbalist Juliet Blanketspoor pairs calendula with fresh violet, plantain, and yarrow as a poultice to respond to chicken pox (Lesley Tierra notes calendula for this use as well).
For inflamed acne, calendula tincture is well paired with tea tree and lavender essential oils (8). It also makes a divine facial steam with rose and german chamomile or other aromatic plants. For vaginitis response, calendula is best paired with thyme, lavender, and uva-ursi in equal parts (7), though I have seen oregano called for here as well.
For digestive complaints, calendula is well paired with Marshmallow Root and American Cranesbill. A soothing external application of calendula would pair well with Slippery Elm, and to highlight its antiseptic benefits, a salve or lotion could be made with Goldenseal and Myrrh (4).
For emotional support, calendula is sometimes paired with rose, mimosa, lavender, lemon balm, and/or lemon verbena. Calendula on its own or with the support of these allies can be called upon for cases of grief and sadness.
Culinary Uses: Calendula leaves and flowers are both entirely edible raw and are great additions to salads, omeletes, stir fries, etc. Calendula is sometimes called “poor man’s saffron” as it gives the same deep yellow color of its blooms to any food it’s cooked with.
The most appealing culinary use I stumbled upon in my research is one suggested by Juliet Blanketspoor. She annually makes a strong broth of calendula flowers, turkey tail, astragalus, seaweed, nettles, organic beef bones and shiitake. She spends a whole day simmering it openly in a crockpot until it cooks down to a concentrate. She then freezes portions of it to use throughout the winter in soups and sauces. YUM.
Cautions and Contraindications: Those with allergies to other members of the Asteraceae family (feverfew, chamomile, echinacea) should exercise caution when using calendula. It should also be used cautiously by pregnant women as it can stimulate menstruation. Otherwise, calendula is generally considered safe and nontoxic.
Dosage and Method of Delivery: According to A Modern Herbal, common dosage is an ounce of calendula infusion to one pint of boiling water for internal use, and a tablespoon as a local, topical application (1). Make a tincture of calendula by using fresh flowers in a 1:2 ratio or dried flowers in 1:5. Tincture dose varies between 5 and 30 drops (6). And again, calendula may be used topically as a wash, poultice, salve, peri-rinse and/or douche.
As always, please check with your qualified healthcare professional for specific dosage guidelines and recommendations.
Grieve, Maud. A Modern Herbal. Dover Publications, 1931.
www.mountainroseherbs.com, accessed online May, 2016.
Blanketspoor, Juliet. Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine Blog, accessed online May, 2016.
Hoffman, David. “Calendula: Herbal Medicine Materia Medica.” www.healthy.net/materia_medica, accessed online May, 2016.
Bergner, Paul. “Antiviral Botanicals in Herbal Medicine.” Medical Herbalism, 2005.
McDonald, Jim. “Herbs for Back Pain,” www.herbcraft.org, accessed online May, 2016.
Mase, Guido. “Integrative Herbalism.” Journal of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. Volume 2, Number 1, June 2014.
Shutes, Jade. “Calendula: Plant Sunshine.” The East-West School for Herbal and Aromatic Studies, 2011.