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Calendula officinalis

by Carrie Mayes

In recent years we've heard a lot about the benefits of herbal hot shots like ginkgo, echinacea, and St. John's wort, which seem to capture most of the popular limelight. After my delightful experience growing and using calendula (Calendula officinalis) this summer, I think it is time to give this lesser-known and perhaps under-appreciated healing plant its 15 minutes of fame. Calendula has a long history of safe use as both medicine and food, and recent scientific research supports its use for many ailments. As an added bonus, calendula is beautiful and easy to grow in your own garden, even for inexperienced gardeners.

Calendula is perhaps best known for its effectiveness in healing skin problems such as wounds, burns, insect bites, eczema, skin ulcers, and rashes. It has also been used internally to soothe and heal gastric and duodenal ulcers, as a wash for varicose veins and hemorrhoids, as a rinse for toothaches, and as an eyewash for conditions like conjunctivitis. In vitro (test tube) research has shown that calendula contains antimicrobial compounds that inhibit certain strains of Staphylococcus and Candida, as well as E. coli and some protozoa, such as Trichomonas. Its wound-healing properties may also be attributed to its high content of natural iodine, carotene, and manganese, which promote skin cell regeneration.

As if all of that isn't enough, experimental in vivo (in the body) research suggests that calendula gently stimulates the immune system and promotes lymphatic drainage, reduces inflammation and pain, lowers cholesterol and triglycerides, and inhibits tumor growth. The bitter green calyx that surrounds the flower head stimulates digestion by increasing bile secretion. Calendula also contains lycopene, which has recently been shown to be beneficial to prostate health.

Growing and using your own

Perhaps one of the best things about this attractive plant is that it is not fussy about soil conditions and can be grown from seed in almost any sunny area, meaning that you can enjoy the experience of growing your own medicine. To harvest, pick the flowers as they open and spread them to dry in a place that is out of direct sunlight and free from moisture. Store the dried flowers in jars and use as needed. Calendula reseeds easily, so at the end of the growing season simply leave some of the flowers on the plants to form seed heads. Scatter the dried seeds wherever you would like to see calendula pop up next spring.

To make a simple skin oil, place a handful of dried calendula flower heads or petals in a glass jar and add enough oil (such as sweet almond or apricot kernel oil) to completely cover the plant material. Seal the jar and allow it to infuse for 4 to 8 weeks, shaking daily. When the oil is golden, strain and store it in a dark bottle in a cool dark place. (Keeping the oil in the refrigerator will extend its shelf life.) Use this oil freely for any skin condition, or add some melted beeswax and a few drops of tea tree or lavender essential oil to make a healing and soothing salve.

To use internally, make a tea from the dried flowers using about 3 or 4 flower heads per cup of boiling water-be sure to remove the bitter green calyx. For a soothing bath, make a strong tea by bringing 3 cups of water to a boil. Add 12 to 15 flower heads, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain and add the liquid to your bath. If you're not inclined to make your own medicines, you'll find a variety of products containing calendula at your local natural food store.

Calendula is believed to have originated in or near the Mediterranean and is now naturalized all over the world. The herb is also known as common marigold or "pot marigold" because the dried flowers were traditionally used in soups and stews to help ward off illness. Ancient Egyptians and Romans valued calendula highly, and, noticing that in their temperate climates it was always in bloom on the first day of each month, called it "calends," after the calendar. Don't confuse Calendula officinalis with the French or African marigolds (Tagetes species) commonly planted as ornamental borders and pest deterrents in vegetable gardens. Calendula can be distinguished by its bright golden orange or yellow flower heads, its sticky calyx, the hairy texture of its leaves, and its height of eighteen inches to two feet.

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