By Randal Agrella, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
The cheerful orange to yellow flowers of calendula are a delight in late spring, summer, or autumn gardens. The plants are sturdy, easy-to-grow, and bloom generously over a long season. The fact that they are edible, make great cut flowers, and have traditional medicinal applications adds enormously to their value.
Calendula originated along the European shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The name is derived from the Latin word “calends,” the Roman name for the first day of each month, supposedly because this versatile plant could be found in bloom every month of the year in the mild weather of its homeland. The Romans, like the Greeks and Egyptians before them, loved the plants and saw to it that calendula spread throughout their empire.
Since those early days, calendula has been valued. The flowers have been praised as a poor man’s substitute for saffron, both for their color and, used sparingly, for their flavor as well. The young leaves are strongly flavored, but delicious; their use as a cooked green accounts for the plant’s common name of “pot marigold.” (But some authorities claim that this common name comes from the northern European practice of flinging a handful of the dried petals into broth to infuse a rich color to the soup.)
Herbal uses over the centuries have been many, and the plant was used as an antibiotic as recently as World War I. Some modern research seems to support many of the traditional uses, including treatment of burns and other skin injuries, dermatitis, and ear infections.
Calendula is easy and fast from seed, blooming in as little as 60 days from sowing. Direct-seeding into the garden, about a half-inch deep, a few weeks ahead of last spring frost is fine. Germination is rapid, and the large seedlings are easily distinguished from neighboring weeds. But Calendulas tolerate transplanting with ease, and much earlier bloom can be had by starting indoors up to a month or two ahead of last frost and transplanting out. The plants don’t mind a few freezing nights, so long as the temps stay above 25 degrees or so.
At maturity, calendula plants may be about two feet wide, and about as high, so final spacing should be 1-2 feet apart. Be sure to thin carefully and transplant extras anywhere a pop of late-spring color is desired.
The plants prefer full sun, with perhaps a bit of afternoon shade as the weather turns hot. Indeed calendulas languish in intense summer heat, blooming all summer only in cooler climates. In warmer regions, fresh seedlings can be set out in late summer, probably after being started in cool indoor conditions. The plants thrive and bloom until rather cold weather, which means they’ll bloom right through the winter in mild-winter climates.
Removing spent blooms certainly increases the blooming season of this treasured annual plant. You’ll want to pick them for cut flowers in any case—their warm tones are particularly stunning combined with blue flowers of various types. But be sure to allow some flowers to mature and drop their seeds, for calendula volunteers readily in most climates.
Story courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed. Seeds available at rareseeds.com