Calendula is a well-known medicinal herb and uplifting ornamental garden plant that has been used therapeutically, ceremonially, and as a dye and food plant for centuries. Most commonly known as for its topical use as a tea or infused oil for wounds and skin trauma, the bright orange or yellow flower contains many important constituents and can be taken internally for a variety of ailments.
In medieval Europe calendula was widely available and was known as “poor man’s saffron” as it was used to color and spice various foods, soup in particular.6 It was used not only to color foods, but also as a dye to color hair and to make butter look more yellow (it is interesting to note that calendula's use as a food coloring in butter lead to it being used as a topical ointment for burns).10Believed to be first cultivated by St. Hildegard of Bingen, an herbalist and nun practicing herbalism in the 11th century in present day Germany, calendula is a mainstay in a variety of European historical herbal texts. A Niewe Herball, from 1578, by English botanist Henry Lyte states that calendula '… hath pleasant, bright and shining yellow flowers, the which do close at the setting downe of the sunne, and do spread and open againe at the sunne rising' referring to the flower's well known propensity to open in the day and close at night or on overcast days.6
Nicholas Culpepper, a 17th century botanist, herbalist and astrologist, mentioned using calendula juice mixed with vinegar as a rinse for the skin and scalp and that a tea of the flowers comforts the heart.7 Astrologically associated with the sun and the fire element, calendula was believed to imbue magical powers of protection and clairvoyance, and even to assist in legal matters. Flowers strung above doorposts were said to keep evil out and to protect one while sleeping if put under the bed. It was said that picking the flowers under the noonday sun will strengthen and comfort the heart.11
Calendula was used in ancient times in India as well, and according to Ayurvedic healing principles is energetically cooling and has a bitter and pungent taste. It was employed as vulnerary, antispasmodic, alterative and used on minor wounds, as an eyewash, to soothe bee stings, and for digestive disturbances.12
And, in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), calendula (called Jin Zhan Ju) is considered energetically neutral and drying and is used to support healthy skin. Calendula is employed to move stagnant blood therefore increasing circulation to the skin.
Traditionally, in Native American cultures, it has been employed to assuage ailments including occasional upset stomach. Traditional use mirrors many of our contemporary applications of this medicinal plant. Modern studies confirm its efficacy.4,15-18 According to herbalist Paul Bergner, calendula is an herb used for minor wounds that helps by bringing circulation to the area in distress. It can be used similarly to Arnica sp.,5,19 yet it is a much more mild plant that can be used on open wounds.