The calendula flower, also known as a “pot marigold” or “English marigold”, is a versatile garden plant that combines both beauty and practical benefits. Calendula is native to the mild, temperate regions of southern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. Calendula plants are prolific bloomers throughout the growing season, but their love of cooler weather makes calendula a real superstar in the fall garden. When other plants are winding down for the season, calendula will be going strong, typically even surviving some of the first early frosts. While it’s best to consider calendula as an annual in most parts of North America, it can grow year-round in regions with mild winters.
The common name, “pot marigold” can be a source of confusion when it comes to calendula flowers. Calendula is in the same family as African or French marigolds, but they are an entirely different genus and species. Calendula’s genus and species name is Calendula officinalis while African and French marigolds are of the genus and species Tagetes erecta or Tagetes patula.
Characteristics of Calendula Plants
Calendula is a monecious plant. That means it has both male and female flowers on the same plant.
As a result of years of hybridization, calendulas are now available in a range of colors from light yellow to bright orange. Plants have also been bred for double-petaled flowers, improved heat tolerance, and unique color shades.
Calendula plants and their flowers are fragrant but not in a typical sweet, floral-scented way. They have more of an herbal, earthy scent.
Depending on the variety, calendula plants may grow anywhere from 12-24” (30-60cm) tall.
How to Grow Calendula Flowers
Where to Plant Calendula
Calendula plants prefer full sun and cooler temperatures. They often don’t do well in the peak of the summer heat in regions with prolonged periods of temps over 85°F. Under hot conditions calendula growth is likely to slow down and plants may stop blooming until temperatures start to cool down. They are considered a short-lived perennial in areas with mild winters, but they are strictly an annual plant in regions with freezing winters. If you want to grow calendula in regions with extremely hot summers, grow the plants in a location where they get morning sun, but are shaded from the hot afternoon sun.
Calendula flowers are a good choice for the middle range of a mixed flower border, between shorter foreground plants and tall background plants. They can also be grown in pots on a sunny deck or balcony.
Calendula plants aren’t too fussy when it comes to soil. As long as it’s well draining, they’ll tolerate soils high in clay or sandy situations.
Calendula plants are resistant to the juglone toxin produced by black walnut trees. That makes them part of a fairly small range of plants that can be planted around walnut trees.
Care of Calendula Plants
- Calendula can be started from seed in early spring once the danger of late frosts is past. Seeds should be spaced 6” (15cm) apart and about half an inch (1cm) deep. Otherwise, you can buy seedlings at a garden center to get started with plants that are further along.
- Keep seedlings and young plants moist, but not soggy wet, until they are well-established.
- Calendula are somewhat tolerant of dry conditions, but would benefit from 1-2” (2.5-5cm) of water each week, during dry conditions. Potted plants will need watering more frequently and should be watered whenever the top 2” (5cm) of soil is dry.
- Flowering generally begins in May or June and continues right up until freezing weather sets in.
- Remove any dead calendula flowers through the growing season (known as deadheading) to keep plants tidy and prevent the plant from going to seed. Seeds left on the plants may get spread around your garden and seedlings may intrude on other plants, although some of the seed is likely to get eaten by birds.
- Seed can also be harvested from the calendula flowers in the fall and stored for planting next spring.
Five Ways to use Calendula Flowers Beyond the Garden
Calendulas Make Long-lasting Cut Flowers for Bouquets
Just a few stems of calendula flowers have a big color impact and add vibrancy to a bouquet. Pair calendula with other garden flowers of the season such as purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, or Japanese anemone.
Calendula will last about a week in cut flower arrangements. Cut the stems at the base of the plant to get the longest stem possible. For the freshest flowers, whether for a vase or harvesting just the flower heads, try to cut the flowers in the morning.
You Can Eat Calendula Flowers
Calendula flowers can be used in salads, tea, and for decorating cakes and cookies. The leaves are also edible, with a light bitter taste that’s a nice addition to a leafy-greens salad.
Because calendulas are grown commercially as ornamentals, not edibles, you should either grow plants from seed or be sure the plants you purchase are organically grown to avoid consuming chemicals that might have been used in greenhouse production. Even homegrown flowers should be washed before use to remove soil or small insects.
Calendula Flowers Can Be Used for Making Dye
Calendula flowers have a history of use for making dye to color fabrics and fibers. Because calendula are safe to eat, they’re also useful for dying foods such as rice or cheese, beverages, and cosmetics.
Use Calendula Flowers to Decorate for Dia de los Muertos
Potted or cut calendula flowers can be used for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) decorations if the traditional marigold (Tagetes species) are not available. The Day of the Dead is a celebration of the cycle of life and death that originated in Mexico. It is a time when friends and family gather to remember those who have died and the celebration involves lots of food, marigold flowers, and a decorative alter for making offerings in remembrance of those deceased such as favorite breads, liquors, sweets, and personal items.
The marigold flowers are thought to serve as a spiritual connection between the physical world and the spirit world. Calendula doesn’t have the spiritual connection to the Day of the Dead that marigolds do, but they fit with the season and pair perfectly with the bold color themes associated with the holiday. Use calendula to decorate the alter, create a table centerpiece, or place a pair of potted calendula plants beside a doorway.
Add Calendula Flowers to Your Edible Landscape
Calendula makes an excellent companion plant in a vegetable garden or edible landscape. It’s thought that calendula plants can help deter some garden insect pests while still attracting beneficial insects like bees and butterflies, but there aren’t scientific studies to support this. Even so, consider interplanting calendula with vegetables or herbs to attract pollinators to your vegetable garden.
Calendula are Popular for Making Natural Remedies
Beyond their garden beauty, calendula plants have been valued for centuries as a natural therapy for skin wounds and irritation. While it is known that the petals of the calendula flower contain compounds that have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects, there aren’t sufficient scientific studies to verify these benefits of calendula at this time.
Also, because calendula is part of the Asteraceae plant family, which includes plants such as chrysanthemum, wormwood, marigolds, and ragweed, you’ll want to check with your physician before using ointments or oils containing calendula, or ingesting calendula with foods or tea, if you’ve ever experienced an allergic reaction to any of those plants.
For those who would like to experiment with calendula’s natural benefits, it’s easy to prepare a range of homemade oil and skin care treatments using dried calendula flowers.
How to Make a Calendula Oil Infusion
Most therapeutic uses for calendula start with making an oil infusion. Here are the steps for making calendula infused oil:
1. Start with dried calendula flowers. You can either purchase the dried flowers or harvest flowers from your own garden to dry. Drying preserves the color and flavor of calendula flowers and removes moisture that can potentially taint your oil. Dried calendula will last for up to a year if placed in an airtight container and stored away from direct sunlight. If drying the flowers yourself, you can hang them upside down by the stems to air dry, spread them on a cloth over a screen that allows air to circulate above and beneath the flowers, or use a conventional oven or dehydrator.
2. Your choice of oil may vary depending on your intended use. If you’re making calendula infused oil to use with food, then you may want to use standard cooking oils like olive, canola, or grapeseed oil. If you plan to use the infused oil to make a skin cream, then you might prefer a fragrant oil, like coconut or almond oil. In either case, always start with fresh oil to make sure your infused oil lasts as long as possible.
3. Fill a jar two-thirds full of dried calendula flowers then cover with at least an inch of oil.
4. Put the lid on the jar and place it in a dark place such as a cupboard or pantry for three to six weeks.
5. Strain the oil by pouring it through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth and into a fresh, sterile jar or bottle. The use of amber glass can help protect the ingredients from light and help keep your oil fresh longer.
6. The shelf life of most oils is around a year, although some are longer. Check the estimated shelf life of different oils when deciding which oil to use. Storing in a cool, dark place or in the refrigerator will help preserve your oil.
Once you have your calendula-infused oil you can use it to make an assortment of soothing lotions, creams, and balms. There are many recipes using calendula oil so you’ll want to do some research to find a recipe that meets your needs.
Harvesting and Drying Calendula Flowers
Calendula flowers can be harvested throughout their flowering season. Don’t wait until they’re wilted and dying to snip them off. The potency of the beneficial compounds in the flowers will be most concentrated when the blooms are still fairly fresh. Frequently removing flowers also prevents the plant from spending energy on seed production instead of the production of more flowers.
Edible Plants for the Flower Garden
It’s fun to combine plants that serve a purpose with those that are simply beautiful. If you’re interested in discovering more plants, like calendula, that are just as at home in an ornamental flower border as they are in a food garden, you’ll want to see our plant list in the article, Edible Plants for the Flower Garden.