If I made a list of the top 10 herbs I use the most in my apothecary and in the kitchen, Calendula would be right there near the top of the list. Her sunny little blooms fill the garden with vibrant cheer and I love working with her for both topical and internal applications. The fresh petals have a peppery taste that is delicious in baked goods and fresh salads, sprinkled in mashed potatoes, pressed into butter, and tossed with roasted veggies. The dried blooms are continuously infused into new batches of carrier oil in my apothecary for use in skin care blends and medicinal salves. I’m distilling a lot of Calendula this year so I can use the hydrosol more because it’s lovely as well. The flowers are a staple in my herbal foot bath blends and teas. This versatile plant is so easy to grow yourself, so I highly encourage you to plant out a few packets of seed if you haven’t added it to your garden yet.
I'm right in the middle of a Calendula trial right now, so Calendula is definitely at the forefront of my mind. I'm testing over 30 different varieties for vigor, floriferousness (not a word), and medicinal quality for a project that I'm working on, so I'm definitely knee deep in working with this pretty little plant. It's truly one of the most used in my apothecary!
Calendula is grown as a hardy annual in most growing zones and as a perennial in a couple of the warmest zones. Back in southern California, I could definitely grow it as a perennial, but even here in the PNW, it kept right on blooming through the frosts and the snow we had over the winter. I've heard reports of it not overwintering well in areas that get a lot more snow (and much colder temps) than we do, but the plants that I left in the ground last fall kept right on flowering and are still going while my new seed-grown batch is just starting to produce more heavily!
Calendula loves to be grown in full sun and will produce the highest yields when planted in the brightest areas of your garden. Well-drained soil is a plus and it seems to thrive when I add lots of compost to the soil before planting and a layer of mulch just after transplanting.
Plant your seeds in seed boxes or propagation trays, covering them with about ¼” of soil and water in well. You can direct sow the seeds, but planting them up in trays first will give you a head start on the growing season so you can start harvesting blooms sooner. It also gives you an opportunity to provide an early food source for the pollinators, which love this plant. Mine are consistently visited by at least 7 different kinds of bees, among other things.
Once your plants have well developed root systems and are ready to be planted out, you can space them about a foot apart throughout the garden. I’ve found that dedicated Calendula beds are strikingly beautiful, but I also plant them throughout my vegetable beds in between plants to draw pollinators to the food plants. If it will overwinter in your area, consider giving the plants even more room in their beds because they'll grow to be quite a bit larger than plants grown as annuals and will need more space. 16-18" would be good.
Once flowers start opening, you’ll want to harvest at least every 2 to 3 days, but I’ve found myself harvesting daily during its peak blooming time. Pick the flowers the day they are fully open and leave a few for the bees, but make sure that you deadhead the flowers you leave behind before they go to seed to keep your plants happily producing throughout the season.
I like to pull or snip the flower heads right off into my gathering tray and then come back through and trim the stems down on the plant later. Your hands will get sticky from the resins in the involucre of the flower heads (the green bracts on the bottom of the flower head). Most of the time, the sticky residue will wash right off with soap and water once you're finished harvesting, but you can also use a little bit of olive oil (or any fatty oil) if necessary for stubborn bits.
Calendula flowers are best dried in a single layer on screens in a warm area away from direct sun with excellent air flow. The blooms are thick (the flower centers, especially), so it’s important to make sure that all of the moisture is gone out of the blossoms before storing them. Make sure you check the flowers after about a week of drying time and if there is any moisture left in the center of the blooms, let them dry longer. Some folks like to use fans in their drying room when they process their Calendula to help speed the process along, but for home-sized batches, I haven’t needed them. If you’re in a humid area, though, fans might be a good idea.
Where I live, Calendula may even take 2-3 weeks to dry completely in the center, so be patient. It's better to wait to get them in your jars than to spoil a whole batch because of leftover moisture in some of the blooms.
Once your blossoms are completely dried, they can be used in:
- herbal butters
- herbal vinegars and salad dressings
- compresses and poultices
- herbal oils
- salves, balms and ointments
- lotions and creams
- kitchen recipes (both sweet and savory)
- herbal tea blends
- bath tea blends
- skin care recipes
- and more!
Calendula is especially suited to applications for the skin (it's full of skin-healing and skin-protective compounds), mucous membranes, and the digestive tract, so keep that in mind when formulating with it. You can read more about making herbal oils with Calendula flower heads here and I also have a post about some of my favorite ways to use Calendula here.
Once you start growing Calendula, you’ll probably find yourself planting increasingly more of it each year. It’s such an irresistible and usable plant!
How about you? Do you grow Calendula?