By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator
Calendula is a quintessential summertime herb – its flowering reaches its peak during the warmest months, and its orange and yellow blossoms look like small suns. Which is exactly why calendula is such an agreeable herb for this time of year, when we all could do with a bit more sunshine, warmth, and color amidst our dark New England days. In the depths of winter, calendula flowers are a saving grace with their brightly colored petals, and their virtues steeped in hot cups of tea.
Like many of our commonly used herbs, Calendula officinalis originates from the Mediterranean region. But due to its hardy temperament, abundant seeding habits, and lovely flowers, it is grown wherever there are gardeners and herbalists familiar with its qualities. Its genus name Calendula relates to its prolific blooming habits, where in the right climate, could produce flowers in every calendar month. Although it is technically an annual plant, this past fall I brought my potted calendula inside to continue its growth under grow-lights, and it has continued to amaze me with its vigor. It has put on new growth and bloomed throughout the whole winter, showing no signs of letting up.
The second part of its scientific name, officinalis, denotes that it is a plant that has an established history of use in herbal medicine. Indeed, calendula is still known and loved for its healing qualities by the modern herbalist. As a lymphatic herb, it stimulates lymphatic drainage, and increases the elimination of waste products from the body. A healthy lymphatic system corresponds to a strong immune system, which is especially important during a long winter, when we are all more prone to colds and flu. Last winter, for instance, I experienced a long-lasting cold that I just could not seem to shake. I took elderberry syrup (link to elderberry post) and rosehip tea, drank bone broths and chicken soup, and slept a lot. But this time, I felt that something else was needed… So I turned to my herb cabinet to locate some summer-dried calendula flowers and steeped them for a long while in a pot of water on my stove. I drank this dark-hued, golden tea, feeling as if it were liquid sunshine, a brew so strong it was almost bitter. My body seemed happy for it, the cold went away shortly, and indeed my mood – after a few melancholic days – lifted.
It was a ray of light during a time of sickness and the winter blues.
Calendula mixes nicely with other herbs, but I would recommend trying it on its own first. Or, you can add a handful of the flower heads to pots of soup or broth as it simmers, which is a traditional way to boost the immunity during the winter months.
Beyond its internal applications, calendula is also renowned for its use as a topical wound healer and balm for the skin. The orange petals have been shown to help wounds heal faster, and increase blood flow and oxygen to the damaged area, helping the body grow new tissue. It has been used with great success as an infused oil or salve in cases of skin inflammation and eczema. A poultice or balm of calendula petals can also help reduce the pain of insect stings and swelling.
If you are growing calendula in your garden, save the dried seeds in the fall to sow the following spring. In the summer harvest the newly-opened and vibrant flower heads and notice the sticky resin covering the calyx, where much of its medicinal goodness resides. Dry these flowers on a screen or on brown paper bags for a few days until completely dry, then store in a glass jar out of the sunlight to use throughout the autumn and winter months. It’s like bottling up the energy of the summer sun to use during darker days.
How to Use:
To make a simple Calendula tea, steep 1 Tblsp. of the dried flowers in one mug of boiled water, covered, for at least 10 minutes. Strain and drink.
To use Calendula in soups or broths, simply add a handful of the dried flower blossoms to any broth or stock that you are making and allow the petals to infuse while the broth is cooking for at least an hour. Strain and use in any soup recipe.
Please Note: Calendula is a member of the Aster (Asteraceae) plant family, which may cause allergic reactions in some people. If you are allergic to Chamomile or other Aster plants, use calendula with caution.
Winter Gladness Tea
This is a perfect mid-winter blend, because it is uplifting, gently aromatic, and full of cheery colors! Sometimes I will add in other herbs such as elderberries or orange peel, but the basic recipe is below - use it as is, or get creative and adjust to your own taste.
This recipe will make 8 - 10 servings.
4 Tbsp. Holy Basil
2 Tbsp. Rose Petals
1 Tbsp. Hibiscus
1 Tbsp. Rosehips
1 Tbsp. Calendula
Use 1/2 - 1 Tablespoon of this tea blend per mug of hot water. Let steep at least 10 minutes, covered. Strain and add honey if desired.
Calendula & Rose Skin Salve
Adding beeswax to an infused calendula and rose oil creates a beautiful salve that can be used topically on dry, winter hands, minor cuts, or patches of eczema. If you add essential oils to your blend you can also create a wonderfully aromatic salve that makes for a lovely gift.
There are a few different methods for making infused herbal oils, but the crockpot method is my favorite and seems to produce the best oil extractions.
1 cup dried calendula flowers
1 cup dried rose flowers (pink or red)
3 cups organic olive oil (or other cold-pressed oil)
~ ¾ cup beeswax pellets
Place the dried calendula and rose petals in a small crockpot. Cover with the oil. Turn the crockpot to low and let steep for at least 4 hours. If at any point the oil starts to simmer and bubble, turn the crockpot off to allow the oil to cool down, and then turn it back on to low. I often do this over the course of 2 to 3 days, turning the crockpot on and off repeatedly, to allow for maximum extraction of the herbs without over-cooking them in the oil.
Strain out the herbs and measure the remaining infused oil. In a double boiler on the stove, mix together the oil and beeswax pellets, combining over low heat. The general rule of thumb is to use ¼ the amount of beeswax to oil, but this can be adjusted according to how soft or hard you want the final salve to be. Check for consistency by placing a spoonful of the combined oil and beeswax in the freezer – in a few minutes you will be able to check its texture; if it is too soft, add more beeswax, if it is too hard, add more oil.
Remove the mixture from the stove and add in 40 – 80 drops of your chosen essential oil(s). Carefully pour into tins or glass containers and allow to set.
Steph Zabel is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world. She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual wellness sessions, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, a community herbal conference. Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997.
Chevallier A. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York, NY: DK Publishing, 1996.
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