Golden Petals: Calendula, Herb of the Year for 2008
by Susan Belsinger
The petals of this annual edible flower have been eaten for centuries, and were often used to color foods such as butter and cheese, puddings and baked goods. Easy to grow, the flowers also hold medicinal properties, and are highly valued for the skin. Come and learn more about these petals of gold: how to cultivate, harvest, and preserve them; favorite cultivars; how to use them in the kitchen; and how to prepare them in oils, salves, and tinctures.
“The annual bed of pot marigolds is filled with plants. These are the true pot marigolds, Shakespeare’s “flowers of Middle Summer”, and by midsummer this spot will appear to be covered with a cloth of gold. I expect them to self-sow, returning every year to gladden our eyes.”
—Annie Burnham Carter from In An Herb Garden
Herb Profile: Calendula officinalis
Other names: Pot marigold, poet’s marigold, Marygold, Mary Golde, Marybud, Holigold, Scotch marigold, golds, ruddles
Native to the Mediterranean, Southern Europe, Iran, and North Africa
Member of the Asteraceae (Compositae) or the Daisy Group
Fairly hardy annual up until frost; grows from 8 to 10-inches and up to
2-feet in height
Pale green, lance-shaped leaves with light yellow to bright orange-yellow flowers from 1 to 3-inches across
Easily sown from seed; cultivate in moderately loamy soil in full sun,
pH range from 5 to 8
“For many centuries its habit of closing at sunset, and opening dripping with dew in the morning, has endeared the pot marigold to poets.”
—Dorothy Bovee Jones, ‘The Way of the Poet’s Marigold’ from Herbs for Use and For Delight, HSA 1974
This sunny-bright annual is easily grown from seed. The appearance of the seeds quite delights and intrigues me—they look a bit like they are from a sci-fi movie especially when they are magnified—curly, tan to cream-colored crescents with lengthwise striations that have raised designs that look like the suctions on undersea creatures or octopus tentacles. Seeds 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 possible 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.”
Associated with the sun, the poet’s marigold faces the sun when rising and opens their flowers, and closes them in the direction of the sun as it sets. 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.
Since antiquity, calendula flowers have been used in infusions for many maladies, so noted by the Egyptians who used it to heal wounds; 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 prevent inflammation and infection. 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; Culpepper claimed it strengthened the heart and spirit, and used it 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.” It seems to have a long-standing place in history for its medicinal value and infusive properties.
In my olfactory, when I sniff the flower of calendula, I first get a honey-like, slightly spicy, woody odor—not unpleasant—and yes, perhaps a pungent bitter smell. When you rub the leaves, this odor is much stronger—intensified with strong resinous overtones. The leaves can be eaten, but this is not practiced, since they are extremely bitter. The flower petals are truly “the gold”, both culinary and medicinally. I also get a few more aromas from the flower disk and petals and it took me quite some time to decipher just exactly what the aroma reminded me of: fresh spring rhubarb and the smell of angelica flowers when they are in full bloom and beginning to form seed. I also smell a fruity sweetness and something that suggests celery seed.
The flavor is a bit more difficult to describe, and it varies with the cultivar, and of course, where and how it is cultivated. The flavor of the flower petals is actually quite mild—herbal, a bit sweet not very bitter—rather unobtrusive. Small bites of the leaves taste of green herbs, resinous and salty at first, and bitter follows farther back in the mouth; not something that you’d want to eat very much of. When I made an infusion of the petals and inhaled the perfume it just reminded me of a very mild herb tea. After steeping a bit longer it was giving me a vague suggestion of something which was eluding me. Smell taste, smell, smell, and finally it came to me: it had the same aroma of the leftover cooking liquid when I roast winter squash or pumpkin with an inch or so of water in the oven. Honest. And it wasn’t just the suggestion of orange, since I mostly smell things with my eyes closed. This makes sense since calendula contains carotene, which is contained in orange vegetables like carrots and winter squash. Mild, vegetable-sweet, a little woody—what’s there not to like?
It seems to me that calendula flowers can be used culinarily in both savory and sweet dishes. In the past, it was used predominately to flavor and color broths, hence the name “pot marigold”. The dried petals have been used as a poor man’s substitute for saffron for both color and taste. It was brought to America and used by the colonists to color butter and cheese. Why even Frank Perdue advertises that he feeds calendula petals to his chickens so that the birds have an appealing golden yellow color 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 color; in batters for cakes, bread, and cornbread for color and mild flavor; with grains like rice or couscous; in mild-mannered soups; I like the petals best in all sorts of vegetables 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 probably 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 used 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 where I store them out of light and away from heat. Then they are ready for my herbal preparations when I need them.
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 before using. 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. It eases digestive disorders such as colitis, peptic ulcers and gastritis. Calendula officinalis is a cleansing and detoxifying herb, good for ailments of the liver and gallbladder. Due to its concentration of carotenoids, calendula flowers are antioxidants.
A few sources state that only the common deep-orange flowered variety is of medicinal value, while others say that only the single-petaled are. Some suggest that all plants, even the wild Calendula arvensis contain the medicinal attributes. 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 in regards to this, he told me, “Trust your nose and your intuition.” From experience I have found that these golden petals are easy and rewarding to grow, flavorful 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—it was 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 mushrooms soup, I might add more mushrooms, or the stems. 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 color whether they are used fresh or dried; they lend a mild pumpkin or winter squash-type flavor.
Makes about 2 1/2 quarts
1 medium onion
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, 1garlic 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 is in season–experiment and substitute whatever appeals to you. If the pansies seem too large, separate their petals and scatter them over the salad.
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, or coriander flowers, johnny jump-ups, pansies)
1 to 2 tablespoons tiny new mint or lemon balm leaves
2 to 3 tablespoons dill of fennel sprigs
2 tablespoons 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.
Egg Salad with Calendula and Chives
For a beautiful presentation serve this on a plate lined with salad greens, and scatter petals over the top for garnish, fresh snipped chives, and/or dill sprigs. Good crusty country-style bread is the best accompaniment; however pitas, rye, pumpernickel, or thinly sliced bagels are good too.
Note: If you don’t have the time or energy, just slice hardboiled eggs onto slices of bread spread with a little mayonnaise and mustard, scatter a little chopped onion or chives and calendula petals over all, perhaps some chopped pickles, season with salt and pepper and you have a gourmet herbal sandwich.
12 hardboiled eggs
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard
2 tablespoons each chopped sweet pickles and juice
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions or minced onion
1/3 cup finely diced celery
2 tablespoons snipped chives
2 tablespoons snipped dill leaves
1/2 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 handful fresh calendula petals, coarsely chopped
Petals for garnish
Dice the eggs and put them in a bowl. Add the mayonnaise, mustard, pickle juice, onions, celery, 1 tablespoon of the chives, paprika, and salt and pepper. Toss well to blend. Stir in the chopped calendula flower petals. Refrigerate for 1/2 hour before serving.
Let stand at room temperature for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Arrange the nasturtium leaves on a platter and heap the egg salad on top. Garnish with whole nasturtiums and the remaining chives and dill and serve immediately.
Calendula Corn Bread
You can add fresh or dried calendula petals to any cornbread recipe. This is a savory and toothsome cornbread. For a less dense bread, you can use all unbleached flour. If you use the sorghum rather than the honey it will be a little darker and heavier in flavor. If you don’t have buttermilk, use the same amount of milk and add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to it.
2 cups buttermilk
3 to 4 tablespoons fresh calendula petals or 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped dried calendula petals
1 1/2 cups cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
3/4 cup whole-wheat flour
3/4 cup unbleached flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 extra-large eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
1/4 cup honey or sorghum
Soak the calendula petals in the buttermilk, while assembling the ingredients.
Preheat the oven to 375º F. Oil a 10-inch skillet or baking pan.
Sift the cornmeal, whole-wheat flour, unbleached flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl.
Beat the eggs in a bowl with a whisk. Add the buttermilk, marjoram, oil, and honey and combine the liquid ingredients; whisk them for 1 minute.
Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and blend well. Pour the batter into the prepared skillet or pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the corn bread cool for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting.
Colonists colored their cheese and butter with calendula petals. Flavored butters are a staple of cooks and are used on a number of foods from bread to fish, potatoes and biscuits to pasta and every type of vegetable. Simple to make, they keep in the refrigerator for about one week, or in the freezer for up to three months. Basil, chive, coriander, dill, fennel, lemon balm, marjoram, nasturtium leaves and flowers, tarragon, and thyme all make delicious butters. This is a pretty and tasty combination for a butter; I especially like the color and flavor of calendula in herbal butters. Try experimenting with your favorite herbs and try adding some chopped calendula petals for color. Generally a single herb, or a blend of two herbs are best when flavoring an herb butter.
Herb Butter with Calendula and Marjoram
To prepare 1/2 cup of herb butter, soften 1 stick of unsalted butter. Finely chop the calendula petals and marjoram leaves, about 2 to 3 tablespoons of flowers and herbs to 1/2 cup butter is a good ratio. Blend the herbs with the butter. I like to add 1 tablespoon of olive oil; it gives the butter a more spreadable texture and a good flavor.You may want to add a bit of salt or pepper, lemon juice, or even minced garlic or shallots, depending on how you are going to use the butter. Pack into a small crock and refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.
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-colored petals make colorful vinegars. If you use the apple cider vinegar the color won’t be as pretty, but it will still taste good.
Makes 1 pint
About 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 them dry. Bruise them slightly. Fill a clean jar about half to three-quarters 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 the 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 flavoring the vinegar immediately. The longer it stands—the more flavor it will have. At a certain point, it will begin to change taste. The flowers and herbs will deteriorate and the flavor 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 flavor; taste every few days or once a week thereafter until you have achieved the flavor 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.
www.herbsforhealth.com click on calendula: golden petals for history, lore and medicinal information about this ancient potherb as well as recipes for our favorite oil, salve, tincture and more.
www.herbcompanion.com click on calendula officinalis: herb of the year 2008 for calendula in the kitchen with recipes–there is even a golden king cake for mardi gras celebration!
www.herbalgram.org click on the cover of herbalgram issue #77 and then click on ‘herb profile’ page 1-2 by gayle engels.
www.herbsociety.org click on what’s new, then scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on calendula: an herb society of america guide.