It’s funny how time time alters one’s appreciation of beauty. I always took the sunny, sturdy heads of calendula in my mother’s garden for granted. For some reason, I mistook their strength for plainness, and I somehow failed to appreciate the color variation of this genus of marigolds. What an oversight! While a garden replete with periwinkle, magenta, and cobalt blooms is admirable, it would suffer without the vibrance the sunny golds and cheery tangerine-colored blossoms bring to my summer oasis.
Indeed, calendulas brighten the yard throughout summer and into fall, bringing light to each patch in which they sit, robust amidst lettuces and chard, grinning underneath blueberry bushes, and beaming alongside lavender. I plant calendula everywhere, sprinkling their large, rainbow shaped seeds on our perennially-oriented berms and in our annual patches, even dropping a few in the raised beds I reserve for my most precious plants.
My purpose is not only aesthetic. Calendulas are edible, adding flavor and color to salads and rice dishes, and medicinal, known eternally for soothing skin irritation, and for their internal use in detoxifying and assisting with inflammatory issues of the digestive system. Calendula are naturally antiseptic, and the resins of the plant are antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral, which lends calendula to help in preventing the spread of infection. Because the herb helps to constrict the capillaries, calendula assist in healing cuts and wounds, as well as other skin conditions . According to Andrew Chevallier in his Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, “Calendula is one of the most well known and versatile herbs in Western herbal medicine.”
Growing calendula is fairly easy. Calendula prefer full sun, but can be planted in partial shade in hot areas. Sow seeds in spring, a few weeks before the last frost. Calendula like a median soil pH, have moderate water needs, and prefer cooler temperatures (and are deer-resistant!). It is an excellent plant for a wilder garden or for the permaculture explorer, as the calendula’s range of adaptability and middle-of-the-road sun, soil, and water requirements can give a gardener a good read on the garden, and sowing a variety of areas will inevitably result in calendula success somewhere, depending on the temperament of the season. Casing point: I sowed calendula seeds throughout our permaculture project (on various heights of mostly perennially-planted berms), in our more traditional annual garden, and in a few raised beds. Because Washington suffered a drought this summer, our berms, exposed to not-quite-full sun, were actually too hot and dry for the calendulas, and this year they did better in our two partially shaded gardens, with our better-watered annuals. Previously years, the calendulas have been plentiful throughout our perennial berms.
You may also choose to intentionally plant calendula with other plants that benefit from its proximity. As a versatile companion plant, calendula is a nutrient accumulator that assists radishes, chard, carrots, parsley, thyme, and tomatoes. The scent of calendulas (and other marigolds) help to deter aphids and cabbage beetles, among other insects, and calendula in particular turns away tomato hornworms and asparagus beetles.
Calendulas are self-seeding, and their seeds are some of the few that seem fairly resistant to bird-buffets due to the heft of the seeds. However, if you are and avid flower collector, be aware that your harvesting simultaneously limits seed production, and you will want to eventually let the flowers go to seed, and then gather those seeds, dry, and store, to help ensure that you have some seeds for the following season.
However, only gathering the last of the seeds is potentially problematic. If you’d like some early-blooming calendulas in the garden (as you should!), reserve a patch or two of calendulas specifically for collecting seeds. With these patches, collect the seeds early on and throughout the season, and avoid harvesting these particular flowers. Avid seed savers point out that the earliest producing flowers have the shortest germination time, and planting these seeds will result in the quicker germination times the following year. While the natural elements will also have an effect on germination, it is always beneficial to try to intentionally select flowers or plants that exhibit traits you would like to reproduce in subsequent years.
To harvest calendula, gather the flowers just before they are fully developed, when the scent and color are at their liveliest. Interestingly, once flowers have attracted a pollinator or are pollinated in the wind, the fertilized ovary obtains most of the nutrients of the plant, and the flower itself draws less. Gather the entire flower head (not only the petals) on a clear, warm, and dry morning, after dew has dried. New flower heads will continue to appear, so calendula harvesters are encouraged to harvest calendula early before any flowers begin to go to seed, and to continue harvesting throughout the season for optimal production.
Shake flowers free of any unwanted organic material, as opposed to washing, and let dry in an area out of direct sunlight, and avoiding unnatural heat. Entire flower heads should be stored in a sealed container in the dark, to prevent the re-absorption of moisture.
Future blogs on calendula-infused oil and homeopathic applications coming soon. 🙂