Each year around this time I write about the herb of the year in all of my columns. Well, imagine how delighted I was to find out that this year’s pick, calendula, is one of my very favorite annuals. There is hardly a plant prettier and more welcome on a chilly day in early spring than the calendula. I have always loved this plant and remember putting my face in its fuzzy gold and orange blooms when I was a kid. Forever anxious to plant seeds, even then, I loved sprinkling these rather large seeds out in late March between Saint Patty’s day and my first day of spring birthday. The spring rains; cool nights and warm days were all this plant needed to be one of the first to bloom, along side of poppies, bachelor buttons and larkspur. Even today I still observe this spring ritual. My plants come up but none of my seedlings ever catch up to the plants in 6-inch pots we get from one of our growers.
So you can see that I was happy when I found out that the International Herb Association chose Calendula as Herb of The Year 2008. To receive this honored title a plant has to fulfill at least two of the three main categories: medicinal, culinary, or decorative. I would say that this gem fits all three for sure!
Calendula has been loved and used in cooking and as a medicine since the ancient times. It has also been called Mary's gold, pot marigold and poor man’s saffron as well as many other local nicknames. However, although called Mary's gold, this plant is not a marigold and should not be confused with Tagetes the true marigold.
Growing Calendula officinalis Although an annual most folks have calendula forever since it re-seeds and come up each year. It is quite dependable until the sweltering summer heat hits in late July and August here in southern New Jersey. Then the plants look pale and spindly, but a trimming and cool mulch will help the plant hang on till fall temperatures revive it. Sometimes new seedlings appear near the parent plant. These seedlings will also bloom in fall and I have picked it until December.
You might want to start seed indoors in a very cool bright spot 4 to 6 weeks before the average frost-free date. I think it is easiest to sprinkle the seed outside directly on the soil as soon as it can be worked in spring. Mix some compost in first to grow the healthiest looking plants. Always plant in a sunny location. The plants often come up too thick and need to be thinned when they are large enough. Like most annuals they will bloom more if you pick them or deadhead the plants. Near the end of the season allow some to go to seed. Allowed to self sow in an area along with other annuals it often becomes part of the cottage look of the herb garden.
The golden and bright orange blooms are edible and look great as a garnish for all types of desserts, but the sunny petals add color and flavor to many dishes. Used often in rice dishes this plant is sometimes called poor man's saffron. It colors butter and frostings and is beautiful in salads. It is best dried when the petals are pulled from the flower head. Most folks snip off the white near the bottom of each petal as this is said to have a bitter taste. The petals can be used fresh or dried on paper towels or screens. A small rack on top of the refrigerator often works well. Place a paper towel over top to protect from kitchen dust. I remember a time many years ago when I had a painful splinter just under a toenail. It was red and swollen, my herb friend Ursula told me to make a very strong calendula tea or actually a decoction. I began by boiling about 2 cups of water and adding about 8 or 9 calendula blooms. I turned the heat back and let them simmer for a bit with a lid on. I would soak my toe in this warm mixture several times a day. It gradually began to draw the infection and I pulled the splinter out. Calendula is often called the organic iodine and has been used for all types of skin disorders. You can purchase or make calendula cream for many skin ailments and rashes. I have steeped the petals in warm olive oil which I placed in a clean coffee can in a pot of simmering water on the stove. You must watch that this does not get too hot. After several hours I turn off heat and allow this to sit all night. The next day I reheat it and strain the petals out and then stir in grated bee's wax. This makes a comforting salve or cream for minor skin ailments. For lots of good ideas and information on uses of this herb for health see an article in Herbs for Health by Susan Belsinger and Tina Wilcox.
My Herb Society friends Susan Belsinger and Tina Marie Wilcox have completed a lot of nice work on calendula the herb of the year. Tina is president and Susan is newsletter chairman of the International Herb Association, the group that choose this plant as herbs of the year. Here is a link to their article and recipes in the Herb Companion. With permission we are including a recipe here. The complete article and more recipes can be found here .
In a few weeks I plan to sprinkle some calendula seeds in the herb garden, make a row of them in my kitchen garden and then start some seeds in the unheated hoop house. Despite this effort, I will also look forward to the big pots of blooming calendula that come in late April or early May. These along with the ones I grow are good for a real show of gold.
Calendula Cornmeal Crisps Makes about 4 dozen cookies
I use a little whole-wheat flour for nutrition and body, but you could use all unbleached flour for a more delicate cookie. Also try almonds or pistachios in place of pecans, or cherries or chopped dried apricots in place of the cranberries.
1-cup sugar 1/2-cup fresh or dried calendula petals 1-cup pecans 3⁄4 cup dried cranberries 1 cup unbleached white flour ⅓ cup whole-wheat flour ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon stone-ground yellow cornmeal 1-teaspoon baking powder 1/2-teaspoon salt Scant 1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg 12 tablespoons softened, unsalted butter cut into 12 pieces 1 extra-large egg 1-teaspoon pure vanilla extract
In a food processor, combine sugar and calendula; pulse until calendula starts to break down into smaller pieces. Transfer calendula sugar to a shallow bowl.
Pulse (or chop with a knife) pecans and cranberries until coarsely chopped; transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
In another bowl, combine flours, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Toss to mix.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Measure 3⁄4 cup of the calendula sugar and put it in food processor with butter. Process until creamy and blended, about 1 minute, stopping to scrape sides if necessary. Add egg and pulse for about 1 minute; add vanilla and pulse to blend. Add dry ingredients and process until just blended; do not over mix.
Transfer dough to bowl with nuts and fruit; stir to distribute nuts and fruit evenly. Using a spoon or your fingers, scoop about 1 tablespoon of dough and roll it into a ball about 1 inch in diameter or slightly bigger. Roll balls in remaining calendula sugar and place on baking sheets, spacing balls about 2 inches apart.
Using a flat-bottomed glass, gently press balls to about 1⁄4-inch thickness. (Dip bottom of glass into sugar occasionally to prevent sticking.)
Bake cookies about 14 minutes, until their edges are lightly browned. If baking two sheets at once, switch places halfway through baking time.
Remove cookies from sheets immediately and cool on racks. (If the cookies cool on the pans, they will harden and break when removed.) Store in a tightly covered tin.
Lorraine Kiefer is the owner of Triple Oaks Nursery and has been a garden writer since 1972. Click here to email her.
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