Sunday, October 23, 2016

Plant Story--Marigolds in History-- Pot Marigolds (Calendulas)

marigolds, Bali
marigolds, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Marigolds and calendulas are mixed up in the literature (previous post). Both are plants with yellow to orange flowers in the sunflower family, Asteraceae. Calendulas, Calendula officialis, are from southern Europe or the Near East, and over the last 1000 years were called marigolds or pot marigolds in the European literature. Marigolds, species of Tagetes, are native to the New World and were introduced to the Old World in the 1500s. Lacking English names originally, they were initially called French marigold (Tagetes patula) and African marigold (Tagetes erecta) in England. Today the Tagetes species are generally called marigolds and the calendulas (pot marigolds) are much less well known.
Note: In the rest of this post I will write calendula for Calendula officinalis, the pot marigold and marigold for both Tagetes erecta, the African marigold and Tagetes patula, the French marigold.

The replacement of pot marigolds by different plants with similar names, French and African marigolds, has created a literature that sloppily reports information about calendulas as if it was written about marigolds (Tagetes) (see previous post). As marigolds were substituted for calendulas they have picked up the calendula folklore. Only when the literature is from before 1492 is it easy to tell which plant is indicated.
Calendula officinalis
Calendula officinalis, calenulas
The early history of calendulas reflects their usefulness and beauty. They are apparently native in southern Europe or the Middle East and from there, very long ago, went to India and by 1200 CE to China. Calendulas became a sacred plant for Hindus in India, the "herb of the sun," used extensively in ceremonies. They were particularly associated with Ganesh and commonly used for temple decoration as in my picture of Balinese decorations that the top of this post (those are marigolds in the photo). The Chinese liked the calendula's similarity to chrysanthemums and treated them as little chrysanthemums, seeing them as representing longevity and prosperity. All of these uses and ideas are now applied to marigolds.

Around the Mediterranean, calendulas have been grown, eaten, and used medicinally since prehistoric times.
The name scientific name, Calendula, is based on the name used by the Romans. Calends (properly kalends) was the first day of each Roman lunar month. The idea of a calendar grew out of recording days until calends when debt payments were due. The word calendula, used for the plant, was apparently a diminutive form of calends, and Linnaeus in the 1750s chose that for the plant's scientific name.

Why did the Romans name a plant after the first day of the month? The Oxford English Dictionary says calendula is based on calendulae, meaning either little calendar, little clock or little weather-vane. Anyone who grew calendulas knew they opened their flowers early in the morning and closed them again in the evening. That seems sensible to us but in the Roman era the best clock was a sundial, so I'm not quite sure what kind of calendar a calendula was, especially since it had a very long growing season. In his Herbal in 1597 Gerard wrote that they bloom from April "even unto winter and in winter also if it be warm" (Gerard p. 603 link). Gerard said that the word calendulae meant "throughout the months." An alternate interpretation was that calendulae should be interpretted "the first of every month"--every calends--another way of saying that it had a long growing season. I don't know how to choose between the explanations.

Like Asians, Romans (and Mediterranean cultures before them) used calendulas in ceremonies and as decorations...and as garlands, for medicine and for food. When Christianity replaced paganism in Europe, Christains embraced calendulas as well, renaming them marigolds (Mary's gold, for the Virgin Mary, the gold being either the flower color or describing the plant as a treasure). Jack Goody, writing of the role of flowers in culture, pointed to many European plants that were renamed by Christians, in some cases to be rid of pagan names, in other cases to Christianize them.

Calendula officinalis
Calendulas had many medicinal uses, described in early herbals. Especially, a salve of calendula treated toothaches, skin irritations, sore eyes, jaundice and much more. Modern science has found calendula preparations to be effective for treating inflamations of the mouth and throat and the salve a valid topical treatment for poorly-healing wounds, as well as dermatitis, bruises, boils and rashes.

The historical European application of calendula salve for eye ailments and jaundice probably stemmed from the Doctrine of Signatures. In medieval European medicine, all cures came from God, all plants were here on earth for some use by people and God had marked the plant so that plant characteristics would cue people as to their medicinal uses. link Many sunflower family plants were used for eye ailments because the flowers look like eyes. Similarly, jaundice creates a person with an orangy or yellowish tinge to them: yellow or orange healing flowers would seem to be marked for treatment of jaundice. Since calendulas are have no known counterindications or side effects, treating eye ailments or jaundice with them did no harm. (Doctrine of Signatures shows up on the web a lot, but is a disproven approach to medicine see: link link).

Calendula flower, looking like an eye
Until quite recently, calendulas were staple medicines used by doctors, especially in the military.  Calendula ointment was one of the most important medicines to dress wounds, aid healing, and reduce infection. In the United States, military hospitals in the Civil War and World War I depended on it. During World War I in England, British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll led a campaign to grow and gather calendulas to get an adequate supply of calendulas to British military hospitals in France (link).We have largely forgotten this since the advent of antibiotics. (link)

Calendulas are edible. Leaves and flowers have been eaten raw and cooked across the world. It was the "poor man's saffron" from ancient Egypt to Renaissance England, coloring foods golden at a fraction of the price of saffron (but no saffron flavor). Flowers were used as seasoning, in broths, in wine, as tea, and on meat. Gerard describes the Dutch drying barrels of petals of calendula for winter "insomuch that no broths are well made without dried Marigolds." (Woodward p. 169). Today, popular recipes put calendulas in stuffed eggs, cream soups, fruit breads and of course use them as a garnish. The orange color is a pretty good dye and the flavor is mild, so calendula flowers easily enhance both raw and cooked dishes.
calendulas, for centuries called pot marigolds
Calendulas developed a rich folklore from Roman times. For example, Macer, about 1200 CE in Germany, wrote "This flower has a great virtue, for whatever day you see it, that day you will not be taken by the fever called ague."(p. 118) The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus, 1502, probably considered fantastical when it was published, says, "the virtue of [calendula] is marvellous: for if it be gathered, the Sun being in the sign of Leo, in August, and be wrapped in the leaf of a Laurel, or Bay tree, and a Wolf's tooth added thereto, no man shall be able to have a word to speak againt the bearer thereof, but words of peace. And if any thing be stolen, if the bearer of the things before named lay them under his head in the night, he shall see the thief, and all his conditions." (pp. 4-5). The pungent odor was supposed to keep ladies from falling asleep during long sermons, so it was common to carry a small bouquet of calendulas into church.

Lovely plants. I have grown them in my garden for years. Most years they self-seed. They are good cut flowers and, as Gerard says, bloom into the fall.
marigolds (Tagetes)
(Next: marigolds in the Americas)

Comments and corrections welcome.

Buy the book! Similar stories in Curious Stories of Familiar Garden Plants by Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist. Now available at Amazon  link

Back to Nature. 2016.Sacred Flowers Used in Worship link
Best, M. R. and F. H. Brightman. 1973. The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus. The Claredon Press, Oxford.
Blumenthal, M., A. Goldberg and J. Brinckmann. 2000. Herbal Medicine. Expanded Commission E Monographs. American Botanical Council, Austin TX.
Calendula "calendula, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 26 September 2016.
Garden Guides, Calendula History. link
Goody, J. 1991. The Culture of Flowers. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Gerard, J.1597. Of Marigolds. The Herball or General Historie of Plantes.  link
O'Hanlon, D.P. translator 1981. Macer's 'Virtue of Herbs' (original about 1200). Hemkunt Press, New Delhi, India.
Sacred Flowers in Hindu Worship link
Thome', O. W. 1879. Text-book of Structural and Physiological Botany. 3rd ed. Longman Press, (this kind of detail does not appear in more modern texts since they are pressed for space).
Valder, P. 1999. The Garden Plants of China. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
Woodward, M. 1964. Gerard's Herbal. The Essence thereof distilled by Marcus Woodward from the Edition of Th. Johnson, 1636. Spring Books, London.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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