Herbs in History: Calendula


Calendula officinalis L.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | June 2023

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Calendula officinalis L.

Illustration 1: Calendula officinalis L.

Marigold (Calendula officinalis L.), specifically the variety with yellow-orange flowers, is now well established among medicinal plants. It easily grows in sunny positions and poor, well-drained soils, and is common in flower gardens, rock-gardens, borders, and also pots. Though annual, it self-sows and maintains itself, bringing a touch of sunny, warm color to the environment thanks to its bright flowers that gave her the fame to be the Bride of the Sun (Solis Sponsa). No wonder if its dense flowers with a pungent scent attract hoverflies, and butterflies (Illustration 1).

Astronomical Connections

Marigold flowers, which are now the most commonly used part of the plant in domestic medicine for the treatment of skin problems, bites and stings, sprains and wounds, have been credited with astronomical connections worth investigating.
The current name of its botanical genus, Calendula, was that of marigold in Classical Rome. It was formed on the Latin term Kalendae, which identified the first day of the months, since marigold was believed to grow and bloom at the beginning of every month and was considered a natural calendar. This explanation—that is, the etymology of the term marigold—apparently botanical in nature, was in fact astronomical. Thanks to this astral connection, marigold was invested with magical powers.


Illustration 2: Janus, the two-faces divinity of Roman mythology, personification of the transitions, particularly of years. Museo della Badia di Vulci, Vulci, Italy (Wikimedia)

Digging deeper in history, the derivation Kalendae/calendula appears to have a more profound meaning. Originally, the term Kalendae did not designate the first day of every month, but only, and specifically, the first day of the year. This day is very special, indeed, as it definitely marks the passage of time, the end of a year and the beginning of another. In ancient mythology, transitions like this were personified by the god Janus, who presided over transformations, endings and beginnings, past and future. This duality was visually represented by his double-faced head, with the left one facing the past and the other one facing the future (Illustration 2). The first month of year took its name from the ancient Roman divinity of transitions: January.

Returning to marigold, the formation of its name in classical Latin (calendula derived from Kalendae as we have seen) connected the plant and Janus through the past/present and ending/beginning processes that the Roman god represented. Just like these, indeed, marigold has the striking characteristic of opening its flowers in the morning and closing them in the evening in a constantly repeated process of beginnings and endings.

Key to this deeper meaning of marigold was the photonastic movement by which flowers open in the daylight and close in the evening as a response to the stimulus of light. Present in marigold, this movement introduced other dimensions in its story. Practically, marigold became a natural weather forecaster, allegedly announcing rain when it did not open its flowers. Cloudy skies and insufficient daylight did not trigger, indeed, the opening of its flowers. Symbolically and less anecdotally, marigold became the Bride of the Sun (Solis Sponsa), flourishing and living its full life in the warm presence of the sun in an amorous image.

Painted Etruscan terra cotta head

Illustration 3: Painted Etruscan terra cotta head of either Catha or Leucothea, 3rd quarter of the 4th century BCE, from the front pediment of Temple A at Pygi (Santa Severa), now at Museo Etrusco di Villa Giulia (National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia) in Rome (Wikimedia).

This nuptial association goes further back in time than the Roman World and originates in Greek Antiquity where marigold’s name was not yet calendula, but caltha. As the mythological tale goes, Caltha was a young girl who was in love with the solar divinity Apollo (Illustration 3). Every morning, she anxiously waited for the first sun rays to illuminate her life and she spent her entire days admiring bright, sunny Apollo. Literally burnt by this inextinguishable passion, she was transformed into the flower that bears her name.
In Caltha’s story and the Greek World, marigold had a very different meaning than in the Janus connection and the Roman World. Instead of an emblem of perpetual renewal (either monthly or yearly), it expressed the grief and pain for the loss of a passionate love, and even of death. This new valence generated a tradition that crossed the centuries and appears in the Renaissance in Shakespeare (ca. 1554-1616):


The purple violets, and marigolds,
Shall as a carpet hang upon thy grave,
While summer-days do last ...
Pericles, Act IV, Scene 1, vv. 1563-1565

Oxlips, in their cradles growing,
Marigolds, on deathbeds blowing...
Two Noble Kinsmen, Act I, Scene 1, vv. 9-10

Nevertheless, in Shakespeare’s time, this interpretation inherited from the remotest Antiquity, was losing ground:

Here's flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer ...
Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene 4, vv. 1980-1984

Besides evoking the flower closing at sunset and opening at dawn, covered by dew, in a delicate image that recalls the heliac nature of marigold in Greek Antiquity, these verses attest to a transformation. Marigold is no longer associated with Caltha’s tragic story, magics, the protection against witches, and crowns hung over doors to protect houses in a way that reminds Janus; mixed with lavender, mint, savory and marjoram, it evokes delicate colors, tastes and smells, love and, more than anything, Midsummer. With this new transformation, marigold is not any more the plant of the beginnings—be they of the year or of the months as in the Roman World—but the plant of the fullest intensity and completeness of the year, actually of the summer solstice and the incandescent ardor of the sun rays in June that burnt Caltha.
With this new symbolism, the visual image of marigold that comes to mind is that of the sunny color of its flowers, incandescent as June sun. The name of caltha might already have hinted at this bright and powerful image: in classical Latin, its root, caleo, indicates warmth, heat, glow.


In Shakespeare’s epoch, times were changing from marigold. In Antiquity, it was not well known and used. It does not seem to have been used by the Hippocratic physicians in the 5th/4th century BCE and appears in the literature only with the Father of Botany, Theophrastus (4th / 3rd cent. BCE), where, however, it is mentioned only as a small coronary plant growing from seeds. In the 1st century CE, Dioscorides provides some more information: a short botanical description and some uses of the whole plant administered as a draught for the treatment of hemoptysis (tuberculosis?), discharge and intestinal troubles, and in external use against nosebleed; the pods were applied on fresh wounds until a scare formed. Dioscorides attributed the therapeutic action to the cooling and astringent property of the plant. Later, neither Galen (2nd / 3rd cent. CE) in the Greek World, nor ibn Sina (Avicenna) (10th / 11th cent.) in the Arabic one, did list it among the plants used for therapeutic purposes.
Marigold did not appear in pharmacopoietic literature before the late 13th or early 14th century and the Tractatus de herbis. There, however, it is identified as a coronary plant like in Theophrastus, which grows all year round as in the Roman tradition. As for its therapeutic uses, it is recommended internally for the treatment of amenorrhea and stomachache, and in infusion through the nose against toothache.
Similar data appear in the epoch-making Historia Stirpium published in 1542 by the German classicist physician Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), who repeated the traditional information according to which marigold was named calendula because it was flourishing all year round. Contrary to Dioscorides for whom it is cooling and astringent, Fuchs identified it as warming and drying, and followed the Tractatus de herbis, thus recommending it for the treatment of amenorrhea in internal use and against toothache as a mouth wash. To this he added that marigold was consumed as a condiment and used to make hair blond. The Belgian Rembert Dodoens (1516/7-1585), who included it among the coronary plants in his 1568 small work on this topic, did not add new information.
Only with the Englishman John Gerard (1545-1612) and his 1597 Herbal did marigold eventually receive more attention. Remarkably, this was the time of Shakespeare and the change in the interpretation of the plant as above.
Among his innovations, Gerard precisely described the plant contrary to his predecessors. In chapter 243 entitled Of Marigoldes, he listed ten species that he characterized in great detail in five full, dense pages of text comprising representations of each of these species that he distinguished by their structure and size, the abundance, shape and color of their flower, or their environment (Illustration 4.1-4).

Illustration 4.1-4: John Gerarde, The Herball of Generall Historie of Plantes. Imprinted ad London by Iohn Norton, 1597 (Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO)
4.1: page 600: 1. Calendula multiflora maxima; 2. Calendula maior polyanthos; 3. Calendula minor polyanthos; 4. Calendula multiflora orbiculata. 4.2: page 601: 5. Calendula polytanthos melina; 6. Calendula simplici flore.
4.3: page 602: 7. Calendula prolifera ; 8. Calendula maior prolifera.
4.4: page 603: 9. Calendula alpina; 10. Calendula arvenis.

Regarding the therapeutic uses, he started with traditional information. He considered the flower warming “almost in the second [of the four degrees established by Galen], especially when it is drie” as did Fuchs. Similarly, he reported the use against amenorrhea and toothache present from the Tractatus de herbis to Fuchs, adding that his predecessor recommended marigold for the expulsion of the placenta and the post-partum treatment, something that Fuchs did not mention, however, in Historia Stirpium.
As the latter already indicates, Gerard went beyond tradition and listed usages not previously attested in literature, but probably coming from the practice of healers. As he wrote, thanks to the warming property:

it [= calendula] is thought to strengthen and comfort the hart, and to withstand poison, as also to be good against pestilent agues.

He ten pursued, focusing on the leaves, which, according to him

are hotter, for there is in them a certaine biting: but by reason of the moisture joined with it ... they molifie the bellie, and procure solubleness if it be used as a potherbe.

Continuing, Gerard introduced new pharmaceutical forms. The first is a distillate:

The flowers and leaves of Marigolds being distilled and the water dropped into red and waterie eies, ceaseth the inflammation, and taketh away the paine.

The second is a “Conserve made of the flowers and sugar”, which

taken in the morning fasting, cureth the trembling of the hart; and is also given in time of plague or pestilence, or corruption of the aire.

From pharmaco-therapeutics, he then moved to alimentary traditions, with a recipe that he attributes to “Dutchland”:

The yellow leaves of the flowers are dried and kept ... against winter, to put into brothes, in Phisicall potions, and for divers other purposes, in such quantitie that in some Grocers or Sellers of spices houses, are to be found barrels filled with them, and retailed by the pennie more or lesse, in so much that not brothes are well made without dried Marigolds.

Despite a better knowledge attested to by the botanical description of no less than ten different species and the pharmaco-therapeutic prescriptions with new pharmaceutical forms as above, there still was some uncertainty in Gerard’s Herbal. Chapter 243 Of Marigoldes is followed by others, on other species of marigold (chapters 243, 244 and 246): Of Germaine Marigolds (chapter 243 with an iteration of the chapter number 243, which was already that of the previous one, discussed above), Of corne Marigold (244), and Of French Marigold, or African Marigold (246). In the conclusion of the chapters Of Germaine Marigolds, Gerard stated “Touching the faculties hereof, there is nothing certaine”.

Since then, marigold has gone a long way. Whereas the German Commission E Monographs approve Calendula officinalis for inflammation of the mouth and pharynx (throat), wounds and burns, traditional medicine uses it as antiphlogistic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, aperient, astringent, cholagogue, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, stimulant, and vulnerary. Homeopathy and other traditions (Ayurveda, for example) have included it in their materia medica.

A heliac symbol with changing interpretations in the past, from repeated cyclic beginnings (year or months) to the burning summery heat and consuming passion, marigold crossed the centuries as a strong emblem, reaching the 20th century and modern poetry, as a symbol of constant return as in the Marigolds by Robert Graves (1895 –1985):

With a fork drive Nature out,
She will ever yet return;
Hedge the flowerbed all about,
Pull or stab or cut or burn,
She will ever yet return.
Look: the constant marigold
Springs again from hidden roots.
Baffled gardener, you behold
New beginnings and new shoots
Spring again from hidden roots.
Pull or stab or cut or burn,
They will ever yet return.
Gardener, cursing at the weed,
Ere you curse it further, say:
Who but you planted the seed
In my fertile heart, one day?
Ere you curse me further, say!
New beginnings and new shoots
Spring again from hidden roots.
Pull or stab or cut or burn,
Love must ever yet return.

European Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC)
Assessment report on Calendula officinalis L., flos Final
27 March 2018 EMA/HMPC/603409/2017
European Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC)
List of references supporting the assessment of Calendula officinalis L., flos Final
27 March 2018 EMA/HMPC/603407/2017
European Union Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC)
European Union herbal monograph on Calendula officinalis L., flos Final
27 March 2018 EMA/HMPC/437450/2017
Articles (selection, chronological order)
Bokelmann J.M. 2022. Medicinal Herbs in Primary Care. An Evidence-Guided Reference for Healthcare Providers. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier, pp. 263-267 (Calendula (Calendula officinalis): Flower).
doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-323-84676-9.00034-9
Siddig I.A., M.M. ElhassanTaha, S.M. Elhassan Taha, A.A. Alsayegh 2022. Fifty-year of Global Research in Calendula Officinalis L. (1971−2021): A Bibliometric Study. Clinical Complementary Medicine and Pharmacology 2 (4) (December 2022): 100059.
Mur R., E. Langa, M.R. Pino-Otín, J.S. Urieta, A. M. Mainar 2022. Concentration of Antioxidant Compounds from Calendula officinalis through Sustainable Supercritical Technologies, and Computational Study of Their Permeability in Skin for Cosmetic Use. Antioxidants 11(1) (January 2022): 96.
doi: 10.3390/antiox11010096
Diva S., M. Salvador Ferreira, J. M. Sousa-Lobo, M.T. Cruz, I.F. Almeida 2021. Anti-Inflammatory Activity of Calendula officinalis L. Flower Extract. Cosmetics 8(2) (2021): 31.
doi:  https://doi.org/10.3390/cosmetics8020031
Ak G. et al. 2020. A Comparative Bio-Evaluation and Chemical Profiles of Calendula officinalis L. Extracts Prepared via Different Extraction Techniques. Applied Sciences 19(17) (2020): 5920.
doi: https://doi.org/10.3390/app10175920
Givol O. et al. 2019. A systematic review of Calendula officinalis extract for wound healing. Wound Repair and Regeneration 27(5) (September/October 2019): 548-561.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/wrr.12737
Cruceriu D. O. Balacescu, E. Rakosy, 2018. Calendula officinalis: Potential Roles in Cancer Treatment and Palliative Care. Integrative Cancer Therapies 17(4) (December 2018): 1068–1078.
doi: 10.1177/1534735418803766  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6247547/
Quave C.L. 2018. Wound healing with botanicals: A review and future perspectives. Current Dermatology Reports 7(4) (2018): 287–295.
doi: 10.1007/s13671-018-0247-4
Nelofer J., K.I. Andrabi, J. Riffat 2017. Calendula Officinalis-An Important Medicinal Plant with Potential Biological Properties. Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy 83(4) (December 2017): 769-787.
doi:10.16943/PTINSA/2017/49126  https://insa.nic.in/writereaddata/UpLoadedFiles/PINSA/2017_Art48.pdf
Schmiderer C., B. Lukas, J. Ruzicka, J. Novak 2015. DNA-Based Identification of Calendula officinalis (Asteraceae). Applications in Plant Sciences, 3(11), 2015: 1500069.
doi:10.3732/apps.1500069  http://www.bioone.org/doi/pdf/10.3732/apps.1500069

Di Lorenzo C. et al. 2013. Plant Food Supplements with Anti-Inflammatory Properties: A Systematic Review (II). Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 53(5) (2013):  507-516.  
Herman A. et al. 2013. Essential Oils and Herbal Extracts as Antimicrobial Agents in Cosmetic Emulsion. Indian Journal of Microbiology 53(2) (June 2013): 232–237.
Arora D., A. Rani, A. Sharma 2013. A review on phytochemistry and ethnopharmacological aspects of genus Calendula. Pharmacognosy Review 7(14) (2013 July-December): 179–187.
doi: 10.4103/0973-7847.120520
Re T.A. et al. 2009. Application of the threshold of toxicological concern approach for the safety evaluation of calendula flower (Calendula officinalis) petals and extracts used in cosmetic and personal care products. Food and Chemical Toxicology 47(6) (June 2009): 1246–1254. 
Lans C., N. Turner, T. Khan 2008. Medicinal plant treatments for fleas and ear problems of cats and dogs in British Columbia, Canada. Parasitology Research 103 (September 2008): 889-898.

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