With their cheery bright orange flowers and generous flowering habit, calendula makes a wonderful addition to any garden. But most gardeners grow calendula both for its appearance and its usefulness. Calendula (Calendula officinalis), also called pot marigold or English marigold, offers a wealth of culinary and herbal medicine uses that set this lovely flowering annual apart from other garden plants.
Don’t mistake calendula, however, for the African marigold, which in the United States is simply called a marigold. Pot marigold and annual marigolds are two entirely different plants. Both have orange flowers, but pot marigold offers a culinary and herbal treat. African marigolds offer many wonderful properties too, including some protection from tomato hornworm when planted near tomato plants, but they are two entirely different plants.
Calendula grows from 8 inches to one or two feet high, depending on the variety. In the United States, it is an annual plant, and although it can tolerate some frost it generally does die out after a hard frost. The flowers are available in orange, yellow and white, with orange the most popular and prevalent color.
How to Grow Calendula
Calendula is easily propagated from seeds. Sow calendula seeds directly into the garden soil a few weeks before the last anticipated average frost date for your gardening zone. Plant the seeds when the soil is cool; the Cornell Cooperative Extension website states that warm weather planting tends to produce weak plants. Cover the seeds with soil as they need darkness to germinate. Calendula takes about seven to 14 days to germinate. Calendula prefers loamy, well-drained soil, so add your soil amendments such as compost well before planting time.
These plants do need full sun, defined as six or more hours a day of bright, direct sunshine. They can tolerate partial sun easily, however, so you can plant them in areas that receive morning or afternoon light only. I’ve also planted them underneath larger plants such as under the shade of tomato and pepper plants in my southern garden, which protects them from the worst of summer’s extreme heat here in the southern United States.
Calendula tends to self-sow easily, which means that once they set seeds, the seeds scatter and sow new plants throughout the garden. You can either pull these plants by hand and compost them or simply move them to new areas of the garden if they’re growing in undesirable locations. I’ve had calendula self-sow in gravel and along pathways; sometimes it seems like it will grow anywhere!
Calendula also makes a wonderful container gardening plant. They can also be added to window boxes or grown with other flowers for a splashy color statement.
One extra benefit to note about calendula: it’s deer resistant. Now that doesn’t mean it is deer proof. No plant is fully deer proof, as many a gardener will attest. However, deer generally don’t munch on calendula flowers, so if your garden is frequented by Bambi and her kin, you may have some luck with calendula.
The Many Uses of Calendula
As a garden plant, calendula adds a bright splash of cheerful orange to borders, cottage garden beds and more. You can group it together for a mass planting effect or add it to accent portions of your garden.
Calendula attracts a wide variety of butterflies, and can be mixed with lantana for a container butterfly garden or simply added to your existing flower beds to provide nectar sources for butterflies. They also make great cut flowers for bouquets and arrangements.
Calendula leaves and flowers are both edible. The taste is somewhat spicy, but considered a delicacy. Many fine restaurants serve them atop a green salad or as a garnish. The flowers themselves can also be dried and used as a substitute for saffron, which is good to know for cooks on a budget as true saffron can be very expensive.
Flowers are used medicinally and as a dye. The flowers produce a yellow pigment that can be used to color cloth and yarn fibers.
Medicinal Uses of Calendula
Calendula flowers have a long history of use in herbal medicine. The flowers are used to make topical preparations to treat skin conditions. Burns, cuts and bruises may all be helped by a cream infused with calendula. The University of Maryland Medical Center gives calendula good marks for efficacy when used as a skin treatment.
Drying Calendula at Home
If you’re growing calendula in your garden and wish to dry the flowers for culinary use or to add to herbal skin ointments, you can dry calendula and store it for several months.
To dry calendula at home, you’ll need calendula plants in flower, a dishtowel or newspaper, and a sunny day. You can also use a dehydrator, but set it low around 90 - 95 degrees F. Oven drying is not recommended as it makes the flower heads too crisp and ruins some of their medicinal and culinary properties.
Clip or hand pick the flower heads as soon as they open. Spread the flowers face-down on newspaper or a dish towel and allow them to dry in the sun for a day or more. If you have an old window screen, these make great solar dryers. Simply spread the flowers out on a screen suspended between two saw horses or chairs. If it’s a windy day, you may need to use a box and place the flowers in side with a screen over the top to keep them from blowing away.
Calendula flowers are dry when they feel like crispy paper. Don’t rush the process, and take them inside at night or else the dew will rehydrate them overnight. Never store them unless they are completely dry. Even a little moisture among stored calendula flowers will cause rot or mold to develop, which ruins the batch.
You can pluck the petals off the flower heads and store them in a Mason jar with an airtight lid. Store in a cool, dry and dark place until you’re ready to use the dried petals. Check them occasionally to make sure they are still fresh. Don't forget to label the jars with the date and the name of your stored herbs.
With so many wonderful uses and a carefree, forgiving nature, calendula makes an excellent addition to your garden. Grow it for its color, or grow it for cooking. Grow it for butterflies or grow it for you. But do grow it this year - you won’t be disappointed.