Lately, more and more people have begun to understand just how limited — in both variety and nutritional value — our "modern" diets have become. This realization has sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs, those plants which — although not well-known today — were, just one short generation ago, honored "guests" on the dinner tables and in the medicine chests of our grandparents' homes. In this regular feature, MOTHER EARTH NEWS examines the availability, cultivation, and benefits of our "forgotten" vegetable foods and remedies, and — we hope — helps prevent the loss of still another bit of ancentral lore.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is the "marybud" referred to in the writings of Shakespeare and is also known as "holigold", "Mary's Gold", or just plain "pot marigold" (but is not to be confused with any of the more common marigold species of the genus Tagetes).
The two-foot-high plants — with bright yellow to orange blooms — look great in an herb garden or a window box, and can provide cut flowers. The herb is also one of the easiest annuals to grow from seed, and almost any large nursery will carry the calendula "spores".
You can start the plants in the house four to six weeks before the last expected frost, or seed them directly into a sunny garden spot once the final spring freeze is past. While pot marigolds prefer well-drained, light, sandy soil, the plants aren't fussy. Just keep them watered and weeded, and they'll bloom from May until autumn, sometimes even producing flowers after the first few fall frosts.
The officinalis in the marybud's botanical name indicates that — at times in the past — the flower was recognized as having medicinal qualities. In fact, the pot marigold was probably one of the earliest herbs known to Mediterranean medicine men, qualifying as an ingredient in healing ointments for cuts, bruises, sores, burns, and sunburn. An infusion of the petals was said to soothe red, watery eyes, give relief to bronchial ailments, help combat anemia, induce perspiration in feverish patients and even flush poisons from the body. (During the Civil War and the First World War, the flower was used to stop internal bleeding, and — even today — some folks rub a calendula bloom on a bee or wasp sting to relieve the pain.)
Furthermore, this herb allows you to have your flowers and eat them, too. Float the blooms on soups and stews, or add the petals (which are really tiny individual flowers called florets) to salads for a pleasantly spicy taste. (Calendulas were once so common in culinary applications that the seventeenth century herbalist Gerard tells us, "No broths are well-made without dried marigolds.") On top of that, the dried blossoms can be used to provide color for homemade cheeses and butters and are also employed as an inexpensive saffron substitute. They may be mixed with other herbs to give added flavor to teas, as well.
To use the florets, I simply pull them off the flower heads , place them in a single layer on sheets of paper, put the pages in a dry, shaded area until the petals are crisp, then store them in an airtight container.
Besides eating your flowers, you can use them to add color to potpourri or to make a natural dye, because the calendula contains a carotene-related dyestuff. And — if all the above uses aren't enough — some people even use a pot marigold rinse to add highlights to their hair!
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