Last night I watched the videos for module 2 of the Cuaranderismo course at the University of New Mexico. Guest lecturer, Bernadette Torres spoke about using calendula infused oil as a breast massage oil to encourage lymph drainage, and reduce pain, swelling, and lumps in both women and men. This was a new use, for me, of calendula infused oil, taken from Mexican traditional medicine and folk traditions.
Calendula (calendula officinalis) is a member of the compositae family. Many plants in this family have health benefits, like chamomile, dandelion, arnica, golden rod, and sunflowers. Lettuce and endive are also from this botanical family. The key feature of this family is flowers with ray petals. Each petal is actually an individual floret and each flower is made up of several rows of florets around a centre disk.
Calendula is easy to grow
Calendula is a hardy annual. Plant the seeds in the ground about 2 weeks before your last frost date. They will begin to bloom about 8 weeks later and continue to give you flowers to harvest for a few weeks after frost. Leave a few of the earliest flower on several plants, to mature and give you seed, so that you can have a perpetual stock of calendula seeds for future years. 2 tbsp of seed will give you several years of calendula for your home garden.
Harvesting the flowers
It’s the flowers that we want to preserve. Pick them in the morning, as soon as the dew has dried from them. Pick them as they open, any time during flowering, before the seeds begin to set. I go out twice a week, once the blooming starts and remove all the flowers that are open or semi open, leaving those blossoms that have visible seed forming.
Saving the seed
The seed needs several weeks to mature on the plant and dry down before harvesting, so save the earlier flowers on the plants for seed, if you have a shorter season. I am in zone 3 and I can get a reliable, viable seed harvest from calendula in all but the harshest summers. The calendula seed will continue to mature on the plant after frost, until you get a killing frost.
You’ll notice that when you pick the flowers their is a sticky, oily feel to the plants, with a strong, distinctive scent. The plant contains volatile oils that contribute to it’s healing benefits.
Preserving the goodness
There are several ways to preserve the goodness of calendula blossoms. Drying the blossoms is the easiest way, but dried flowers will preserve the goodness of calendula for only a year. By preserving it in other ways, you can extend this shelf life from a year to up to 5 years.
Dry the flowers
Calendula flowers are high in moisture and oil content. I find that in order to dry them at room temperature, in the high humidity of my usual summer weather, I need to put them in an airy container, like a wicker basket, and put them somewhere with strong airflow. This is hard to achieve in my climate, which is fairly cool, in the mountains, so I resort to drying my calendula in a dehydrator on low heat. If you live in a desert climate you will be able to dry calendula without resorting to an electric dehydrator.
When drying herbs in a dehydrator, keep the temperature as low as possible, so that the herbs aren’t subject to strong heat.
Overnight is usually long enough to dry the delicate blossoms. The petals will darken. The centre should be completely dry with no perceivable moisture in the centre. Store the fully dried flowers in glass jars, with a tight fitting lid or paper bags.
Dried flowers can be used as in herbal teas, oil infusions, tinctures, and honey-vinegar infusions. Expect the dried flowers to last until the next harvest season. To make an herbal tea with calendula, add 1 tsp of the dried herb to a tea ball, and use 180*F water. Flower teas should have water that is slightly cooler than tea made from camelia tea leaves.
Make a tincture
Tinctures are made by pouring alcohol over the fresh or dried blossoms and allowing the mixture to macerate for 6 to 8 weeks. I use vodka (40% alcohol) because this is the highest percentage that I can buy in Canada. Those of you in the US can get stronger alcohol. While using a stronger alcohol can allow you to mix specific ratios of tincture according to materia medica standards, for home use this is not necessary. Use the alcohol that you can obtain legally in your area. Using fresh flowers instead of dries in a tincture will dilute the tincture somewhat compared to tinctures made with the dried flowers.
Use the tincture as a wound wash or take internally. (1 tsp. 3 times a day). Calendula tincture helps with menstrual cramps, ulcers, stomach upset, fevers, and supports the liver.
Make an oil infusion
Oil infusions are made by pouring olive oil or sweet almond oil over fresh or dried calendula blossoms. If you plant to use fresh blossoms, allow the blossoms to wilt overnight before infusing, to minimize the risk of mold in the jar. Add 1/4 tsp. of vitamin e oil to preserve the oil from rancidity.
Infuse the oil on a sunny window sill for 4 to 6 weeks. Strain and reserve the oil. Add an additional 1/4 tsp. of vitamin e oil per quart of liquid. Store in a coloured glass bottle, label and date. Calendula infused oil can be used as a massage oil, to encourage lymph drainage, reduce swelling, pain, and inflammation, and to promote healing of tissue, cuts, and wounds. It also soothes and heals dry, cracked skin. The infused oil will last up to 3 years if protected from light, heat, and moisture.
Make an ointment
Take the infused calendula oil and make an ointment. This is the easiest first aid salve that you can make, with only the infused oil and beeswax. Use 1/4 cup of bees wax for every cup of infused oil.
For a more luxurious ointment, I like to add cocoa butter for its soothing emollient action.
Here’s my recipe for calendula ointment for first aid:
1 cup of calendula infused oil
2 tbsp bees wax
2 tbsp cocoa butter
5 drops of lavender essential oil
5 drops of tea tree essential oil
1/4 tsp. vitamin E oil
Heat beeswax and cocoa butter together until completely melted. Warm the infused oil, very gently until just warm. Add to the beeswax, cocobutter mixture. Heat just until all is evenly melted and mixed together. Add vitamin E oil and mix thoroughly. Remove from heat. Add the essential oils.
Pour into 4 120ml glass jars and cap tightly. Ointment will keep for many years. Store in a cool, dark place. Store at room temperature away from heat once the jar is opened.
Make a tissane
A tissane is an herbal tea made without tea leaves. Both dried and fresh calendula blossoms can be used to make a tissane. Usually herbal teas are made with water that is just simmering, in order to preserve the volatile oils in the flowers. Always cover the pot where the tissane is brewing to prevent the goodness from evaporating into the air. Use this to ease menstrual cramps, stomach upset, calm the pain of ulcers, reduce fever. Once the tissane is brewed, keep it refrigerated and use 1/2 cup to 1 cup 3 or 4 times a day.
Bonus round: Eat it
And while you are busy trying to preserve the bounty for winter, don’t think of calendula as only a medicine. Calendula flower petals are a fun addition to rice dishes, adding some of their cheering yellow colour to the dish. Add the fresh (or dried) petals to tossed salads, or even drop a few tablespoons of the fresh petals into a jar of fermented lemons or other citrus fruits. Flowers are good food and good medicine. Seeing the petals in food increases the fun factor, too.
Pregnancy caution: Calendula should not be used internally during pregnancy as it stimulates menstruation. Using it externally as a salve or massage oil is fine and will relieve lymph congestion, decrease stretch marks, and ease breast soreness.
For more on growing calendula check out Homespun Seasonal Living.