Herbal Sunshine

On August 24, 1798, Martha Ballard gathered some medicinal supplies. Since she noted that she was “at home,” Ballard either cultivated these plants in her yard or permitted them to grow freely. The “merigolds” likely were Calendula, now also known by the name Pot Marigolds.

Cloudy morn, raind before noon. I have knit Some, gatherd Cucums, Camomile, merigolds and pickt Some wool. Jane Did hous work and Spun yarn for a Mop.

Ballard never mentions what she uses the Calendula for. They are a beautiful flower, so she may have just wanted them for decoration. Given the household’s interest in weaving, the bright yellow flowers may have been used as a dye for linens. Then again, considering Ballard’s herbal practice, the Calendula probably was used medicinally. After all, it has a variety of uses that would have been beneficial to those living on the Maine frontier.

In my first herbalism course, we each had the opportunity to make a tincture. The instructor gave us several herbs to choose from. We would fill a mason jar halfway with the herb, then fill the jar all the way to the top with brandy. I chose Calendula as my first tincture simply because I had never heard the name before. The only marigolds I knew were what I now understand are the shorter, fuller North American variety, Tagetes. The name marigold originally was used for the European variety, Calendula, c. Officinalis. Sometime after European settlement on this continent, which included the arrival of invasive plant species, the term marigold shifted to the native variety and the Latin name became the preferred nomenclature for the European plant. At the time, I didn’t know any of this. I thought I was making a tincture of, you know, marigolds.

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Original book source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé ”Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz” 1885, Gera, Germany Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber Source: Wikimedia.

Once I got home and started reading about herbs, I realized my ignorance. I had a lot to learn.

But I didn’t regret my choice. Calendula is an amazing herb. One text calls it “herbal sunshine,” a nickname that somehow seems appropriate. In The Earthwise Herbal, Matthew Wood describes European peasants tossing the flowers and leaves into winter soups, brightening the broth and boosting their immune systems. I’m now writing in the midst of winter, and I find this imagery especially delightful. I’m beginning to think I should take Amy Stewart’s suggestion in The Drunken Botanist and make a vodka-based Calendula infusion as the basis of a midwinter cocktail.

What initially drew me to Calendula was not just the name, but also its uses. In a steam, Calendula can soothe dry skin. Topically, it helps heal minor burns, scrapes, and cuts. There is some indication it may help heal damaged nerves. Ingested, it boosts the immune system and lymphatic function. It seemed that this was a Really Useful herb to have around. The more I read about it, the more I could see why Ballard would want to have it handily growing in her garden.

According to a 2013 article*:

Medicinal properties of C. officinalis have been mentioned in Ayurvedic and Unani system of medicine indicating that leaves and flowers are antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, antiepileptic and antimicrobial…In traditional and homoeopathic medicine, C. officinalis has been used for poor eyesight, menstrual irregularities, varicose veins, hemorrhoids and duodenal ulcers…In the middle ages, Calendula flowers were used for liver obstructions, snake bites and to strengthen the heart. It was used in the 18th century as a remedy for headache, jaundice and red eyes. The plant was employed in the civil war to treat wounds and as a remedy for measles, smallpox and jaundice.

The authors report that preliminary “pharmacological studies reveal that C. officinalis exhibits antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and antioxidant properties,” but further exploration needs to be done.

Since that first class, I have added the Calendula tincture to a Skin Soother salve. I’ve realized that I am more interested in using the dried herb in various ways, but I don’t have any on hand. I guess I will have to wait for the summer to grow some of my own herbal sunshine.

*D. Arora, A. Rani, A. Sharma. “A Review on Phytochemistry and Ethnopharmacological Aspects of Genus Calendula.” Pharmacognosy Reviews. 2013;7(14):179-187. doi:10.4103/0973-7847.120520.

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