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Picture a flower with such intense orange or yellow petals that it brightens moods and gardens both. Give it significant healing properties for internal and external application, then add a zesty flavor that makes it a culinary herb as well.
Calendula officinalis (pronounced cal-EN-du-la) fits all of these descriptions and more. No wonder it's been named 2008 Herb of the Year by the International Herb Association. This cheerful plant belongs in your garden and in your herbal medicine kit for the benefit of every member of your family--especially your dog.
Vermont herbalist Rosemary Gladstar treasures calendula. "I love how beautiful it is," she says, "with its golden head rising forth in the garden, a bit of sun on earth. In early winter, this brave little bright light is often the last flower to bloom in my gardens. I've often seen it rising out of a fresh dusting of winter snow. I also love it, of course, because of its medicinal power. Calendula tea or tincture is my favorite herbal treatment for lymph system support, and used externally it is an awesome healing aid for every type of skin condition."
Calendula, whose common names include pot marigold, marigold, garden marigold, and Mary bud, is entirely different from the more familiar bitter-tasting French or African marigold, Tagates spp, which has ruffled blossoms. Calendula is a member of the composite or daisy family, and its long, slender petals have a mildly astringent flavor and fragrance. Its Latin name is derived from calends, the first day of the Roman month, because it was thought to bloom at every new moon.
Calendula is prized by herbalists for its versatile benefits. Triterpene saponins, flavonoids, carotinoids, and volatile oils give it anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiviral, and antilipid effects. Its virus-fighting properties have been proven in tests on vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), a family of viruses that affect horses, cattle, and pigs, and the herb is of interest to AIDS researchers because extracts made from dried calendula have potent anti-HIV activity.
Some human clinical studies support the use of calendula in the early treatment of stomach ulcers, and it is valued as an ingredient in preparations that, when applied externally, reduce pain in post-mastectomy lymphedema. Calendula teas and extracts make effective mouthwashes that help treat and prevent gum disease, and the tea can be used as an eyewash.
Calendula is most popular, however, as a wound healer and skin-repair herb. It speeds the healing of cuts, burns, and abrasions by promoting the formation of granulation tissue while preventing bacterial growth. Calendula tea is a highly effective wound wash or rinse, and petals strained from freshly brewed tea make an effective poultice or wound dressing.
Sunshine in the garden
Native to Europe, calendula is a short (12 to 18 inches tall) annual that, once established, enthusiastically self-seeds and reappears year after year. To grow your own, purchase seeds and plant them directly in the garden, or start them indoors for transplanting after the last frost. Depending on your climate, calendula may thrive in spring and early summer, or it may prefer to be planted in late summer or early fall. For medicinal use, look for traditional Calendula officinalis rather than modern hybrids.
Calendula does best in full sun and any moderately fertile, well-drained garden soil. To avoid crowding, thin the seedlings to between 4 and 6 inches apart.
To extend calendula's blooming season, pinch or cut the flower heads before they develop seed pods.
Harvest blossoms at their peak on sunny days after the dew has dried. The stems exude a sap that will stick to your fingers as you toss flowers into your basket, colander, or collection bag.
Use fresh calendula flowers whole or strip the petals from flower heads to brew tea, make tincture, or add to your dog's food or your own favorite dishes.
To dry calendula blossoms, place them on a mesh rack, wire rack lined with cheesecloth, or cookie sheets. Spread flower heads so they don't touch each other and leave them in a warm, dry, shady location with lively air circulation. An electric fan set on low can speed drying if needed. For faster drying, strip off the petals and discard the flower heads.
If damp or cool conditions prevent rapid air drying, cookie sheets holding calendula blossoms can be placed in an oven warmed by a pilot light or oven light, or the oven can be set to a "keep warm" temperature. Another way to dry the blossoms is to use a food dehydrator or set your drying rack next to a dehumidifier.
Before storing dried calendula flowers in tightly sealed containers, be sure they pass the "snap" test. The flowers should be so dry that when folded they snap and break rather than bend. Residual moisture causes mold growth, so be sure the flowers are dry, dry, dry. Store calendula in closed containers away from heat, light, and humidity.
Calendula at work
Juliette de Bairacli Levy, founder of the Natural Rearing movement and the author of several books about herbal animal care (see "Grandmother Nature," WDJ July 2006), considers calendula an important tonic and heart medicine. "Goats and sheep seek it out," she writes in her Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable. "The flowers possess important restorative powers over the arteries and veins, and thus are much fed by the Arabs to their racing horses. The flowers are fed also to make miserable and fretting animals cheerful."
Her list of uses for calendula include the treatment of vomiting, internal ulcers, fevers, all ailments of the arteries and veins, heart disease, and all skin conditions, including eczema and warts.
She recommends adding calendula flowers to food, brewing a strong tea for external application, making a lotion by boiling finely cut flowers and leaves in milk, making a therapeutic cream by adding minced flowers to cream or unsalted butter, and making a vinegar tincture for removing the pain and swelling of bee and wasp stings.
New Jersey herbalist Cathy Lauer's favorite use for calendula is in a mixture she calls Best Bath Ever. "That's a mighty name," she says, "but for me it feels just like that. I combine equal parts dried calendula, chamomile, and lavender flowers and let them steep in just-boiled water for 15 minutes before straining. The proportions are a handful or so to a quart of water. For your dog's final rinse after bathing or as a between-bath refresher, add a quart of this tea to a gallon of water. As you pour it over the dog's coat, work it in with your fingers or a comb. Blot with a towel before blow-drying, or, if your dog has a short coat, let it air dry. All three of these herbs are soothing to the skin, calming, relaxing, and cleansing. I credit calendula for giving the water an extra-soft feel."
Carol Lizotte at Green Gems Herbals in Fremont, New Hampshire, is another calendula fan. "I am an herbalist to animals," she says. "I love calendula for my canine companions and include it in lots of formulas. I make a healing salve by infusing calendula in olive oil with other herbs and essential oils for dogs and people. I consider calendula one of the most gentle and valuable lymphatic herbs we have, and certainly the best skin herb I have found."
Buddy, a nine-year-old Beagle/Shetland Sheep Dog-mix, had fatty cysts on his hindquarters, chest, and neck. He also had an underactive thyroid and a slight cough. Lizotte combined calendula with other herbs in a tea that was added to his food. "There was a decrease in cyst sizes within one month," she says. "All is still well with Buddy, and he continues to improve."
When Vegas, a four-year-old French Brittany, tangled with a woodchuck last year, the woodchuck won. "The wound was so deep it exposed the muscle beside Vegas's neck," says the dog's owner, Long Island, New York, herbalist Randy Parr. "I applied a calendula-comfrey ointment, and in two days the muscle was covered with new skin. In two weeks, all the hair had grown back. Vegas loved the taste of the ointment so much that he grabbed the plastic jar when I wasn't around, popped the lid off by biting the sides, and ate the whole thing! I'm embarrassed to admit that Vegas did this twice--but he suffered no ill effects. I've learned my lesson and keep it on a higher shelf. "
Rosemary Gladstar uses calendula for animals in two ways. "One is my all-time favorite skin salve made with calendula, comfrey, and St. John's wort," she says.
"It's so versatile, you can use it for anything--cuts, burns, sores, cracked paw pads, scrapes, abrasions, and scratches. The other use is as a wash for wounds and infections, including hot spots and allergic rashes.
"I've sometimes found that certain infections, especially those that are allergy related, seem to get further irritated with the use of a salve or other oil-based remedy. The oil seems to hold in the 'heat.' When this is the case, I brew a quart of calendula tea and let the herbs steep for half an hour or 45 minutes. I don't strain the calendula but just apply the 'mash' over the infected area. If it's where the dog will lick the wound, no problem. Calendula is totally edible and will aid the dog internally. Other herbs such as comfrey, nettle, chickweed, and a small amount of organically cultivated goldenseal can be added as well, but calendula is so healing that it usually works fine on its own.
"Hot spots and other allergic reactions are sometimes irritated by the dog's constant biting, picking, scratching, and licking," she continues. "My beautiful Bernese Mountain Dog, Deva, had many allergies when she was young. Until I found out what she was allergic to and got her on a raw-food diet, she would get terrible hot spots.
"Whenever that happened, I would brew calendula and comfrey tea and blend everything into a mash in the blender. Then I would thicken this brew with comfrey powder until it was quite gooey. I would smooth the paste thickly over the irritated area and when it dried, it formed a hard crust that she couldn't lick off. The calendula-comfrey paste not only healed the area but also prevented her from scratching and irritating it further. Generally after a few days the paste would cake off and underneath would be freshly healed skin."
Because calendula does not produce an essential oil when distilled, only its hydrosol (flower water) is made by steam distillation. Calendula hydrosol is available from some aromatherapy supply companies and, like calendula tea, it is used as a mouthwash, skin rinse, and soothing spray. It can also be added to food and water using the same dosages given for strongly brewed tea.
Calendula essential oil is produced by a carbon dioxide extraction method in which liquid CO2 is used as a solvent in a closed chamber. When the chamber is opened, the CO2 evaporates, leaving no solvent residue in the essential oil. "The end result," says aromatherapy supplier Marge Clark in Madison, Tennessee, "is an extract as close to the natural essence of the plant that anyone has achieved. Small amounts of CO2-extracted calendula essential oil, such as 1 to 2 percent of the total, can safely improve the effectiveness of skin care oils, creams, salves, and lotions."
Calendula-infused oil makes a perfect aromatherapy base for essential oils that fight infection or relieve other symptoms. I Itch Not and Hot Spot, two AromaDog products developed by canine aromatherapist Faith Thanas, use such an oil base.
Look through the catalogs or websites of homeopathic supply companies and you'll find dozens of products that contain calendula, everything from single remedies in various strengths to homeopathic calendula gels, creams, lotions, sprays, oils, and tinctures. These products are recommended for the relief of cuts, burns, skin irritations, bruises, wounds, itchy skin, and rashes.
One manufacturer quotes John Tyler Kent, MD, a leading homeopathic physician, as saying, "Calendula is all the dressing you will need for open wounds and lacerations."
As explained in "How Homeopathy Works" (WDJ, December 2007), homeopathic remedies are made by diluting and succussing (shaking or pounding) ingredients in a sequence of steps that is said to increase their potency and effectiveness.
"I love calendula gel," says veterinary homeopath Stacey Hershman, DVM, of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. "I use it on minor, superficial scratches, rashes, and wounds. If a dog has red, itchy skin, I have the owners store calendula gel in the fridge so the gel can be put on cold, which soothes inflammation. I also use the gel in red, inflamed ears that are ulcerated and bleeding. I apply it after ear flushes."
Make your own
Follow these simple guidelines to make your own canine-friendly calendula products.
Brew medicinal-strength calendula tea by pouring 1 cup boiling water over 2 teaspoons dried or 2 tablespoons fresh calendula blossoms. Cover and let stand until lukewarm or room temperature, 30 to 45 minutes.
For a more concentrated tea, combine calendula with cold water in a covered pan, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer gently for 5 to 10 minutes. Then remove from heat and let stand until cool.
Calendula tea can be stored for several days in the refrigerator.
Make an infused oil by filling a glass jar with loosely packed fresh blossoms or petals. If using dried calendula, fill the jar half way to leave room for expansion. Cover the blossoms with olive oil, filling the jar to within 1 inch of the top. Seal tightly. You can leave the jar outside in direct sunlight for several weeks or even months before straining. Shake the contents once in a while to enhance the process. This method works best with fresh blossoms that have been allowed to wilt slightly to reduce their moisture content. Otherwise, excess moisture can create a sour smelling oil.
Alternatively, combine blossoms and olive oil in a crock pot or slow cooker set on low, or in the top half of a double boiler set over gently simmering water. After a few hours, the olive oil will take on a deep yellow or golden orange hue. The heat of these methods drives off moisture in fresh blossoms and prevents rancidity.
When the macerated oil is ready to use, strain it through cheesecloth or a dish towel or small towel, pressing the fabric to remove as much oil as possible. For convenience, decant into small glass jars or bottles. Tightly seal the caps or lids. Label the jars with contents and date, and store them away from heat and light.
Make a salve by adding 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) shredded or chopped beeswax to 1 cup calendula-infused olive oil. Gently heat the mixture in the top half of a double boiler or melt in a small pan set in a larger pan of simmering water. If desired, add 10 to 20 drops of lavender, tea tree, or other disinfecting essential oils as a preservative. Pour into clean, sterilized jars, like glass baby food jars or plastic salve jars. Label and store away from heat and light.
Or, combine calendula-infused olive oil with equal parts olive oil infused with St. John's wort blossoms and comfrey. Or, if desired, combine equal parts of fresh or dried calendula, St. John's wort, and comfrey, cover with olive oil, and macerate as described above. Be sure to let fresh comfrey wilt first to reduce its moisture content. This is the basic recipe for Rosemary Gladstar's favorite salve. Thicken with beeswax and, if desired, add several drops of essential oil before pouring the salve into jars for storage.
Make a tincture (liquid extract) by filling a jar of fresh or dried calendula blossoms with 80-proof vodka or other grain alcohol. Start with a jar loosely filled with fresh calendula blossoms or half-filled with dried calendula, leaving room for expansion. Seal the jar tightly and leave it in a warm location for six weeks or longer, shaking it every few days. Strain through filter paper or cheesecloth and store in small glass bottles away from heat and light.
For an effective non-alcohol tincture, cover the flowers with raw apple cider vinegar and follow the instructions above.
To busy to make your own calendula remedies? Several pet care products contain this special plant, including Calendula Skin Spray by Tasha's Herbs. Tasha's ingredients are distilled water, fresh calendula flowers, Echinacea angustifolia root, aloe vera gel, flower essences, vegetable glycerin, and grain alcohol.
Calendula is also a key ingredient in Pal Dog's Freshen-Up Sprays, Soothing Spot Spray, and Soothing Balm.
Treating your dog
Calendula has an exceptional safety record and is recommended for dogs of all ages. In their book All You Ever Wanted to Know about Herbs for Pets, Mary Wulff-Tilford and Gregory Tilford caution against feeding calendula to female dogs during early pregnancy, not because any dogs have been adversely affected but because in some studies calendula may have triggered miscarriages in pregnant rats.
The comprehensive reference book Veterinary Herbal Medicine by veterinarian Susan G. Wynn, DVM, and medical herbalist Barbara J. Fougere mentions only that the herb should not be used when allergy to plants of the Asteraceae or daisy family is known or suspected. Calendula has no known potential drug interactions.
Add calendula blossoms, tea, or hydrosol to your dog's food. Some herbalists toss whole fresh or dried flower heads into the bowl while others break the flowers apart or, in the case of dried flowers, grind them to a powder. Calendula may improve digestion, treat colitis and other chronic digestive problems, and help prevent yeast or fungal infections.
As the Tilfords explain, while virtually no scientific data exist to validate the effectiveness of calendula in the treatment of fungal infections in dogs and other animals, "calendula's safety and reputed effectiveness as a broad-spectrum antifungal agent make it an option worth trying." For digestive problems, use it alone or combine calendula with fresh or dried chamomile, another important digestive herb. Add up to 1 teaspoon dried or 1 tablespoon fresh flower petals per 20 pounds of body weight per day.
To help improve digestion, treat yeast or fungal infections, or stimulate lymph circulation, add strongly brewed calendula tea or hydrosol to food at the rate of 1 tablespoon per 30 pounds body weight twice daily. If also adding fresh or dried calendula to food, use 1 tablespoon tea per 30 pounds body weight once per day.
Cook with calendula. If you ever feed your dog rice or make dog biscuits, calendula can provide both color and flavor. One of the plant's nicknames is "poor man's saffron." Simply add a handful of coarsely chopped fresh or dried calendula petals before cooking or baking.
Improve your dog's oral health with calendula. Calendula is recommended for gum disease and mouth irritations. Dampen your dog's toothbrush with calendula tea, hydrosol, or diluted tincture, or wrap gauze around your finger, soak it, and massage your dog's gums. You can also apply calendula tea, hydrosol, or diluted tincture by squirting it into the side of your dog's mouth with an eyedropper or by using a small spray bottle. The more contact calendula has with your dog's mouth, the better.
Rinse wounds with calendula. It's an effective wash or rinse for cuts, bites, burns, abrasions, scratches, insect bites, stings, poison ivy, sunburn, and other injuries. Apply calendula tea, hydrosol, or diluted tincture to remove debris, cleanse the wound, and accelerate healing. All canine skin conditions, including hot spots, lick granulomas, open sores, and itchy yeast infections, can be sprayed or soaked with calendula, or they can be dabbed with a calendula-soaked cotton ball. Repeat often. To speed the healing of yeast or fungal infections, dry the treated area with a blow dryer set on low heat.
Note: Strongly brewed calendula tea may temporarily stain a white coat. Applied as a final rinse, it enhances red, yellow, and light brown coats.
Make an eye wash for conjunctivitis or minor eye injuries by straining calendula tea through coffee filter paper or several layers of cheesecloth, and add a pinch of unrefined sea salt, such as 1/8 teaspoon salt per cup of tea. Spray the dog's eyes for several seconds at a time and repeat this treatment several times per day.
Apply a calendula compress to new, slow-healing, or infected wounds by saturating a wash cloth, gauze, cheesecloth, or absorbent cotton with calendula tea or diluted tincture. Hold on the affected area for five minutes. For burns, cuts, scrapes, and scratches, use cold tea (brew it extra strong, then add ice to chill it quickly) or hydrosol, or add calendula tincture to ice water. For abscesses, infected sores, or impacted anal sacs, use a comfortably hot tea, hydrosol, or diluted tincture. The hot application, which speeds relief, is called a fomentation. After five minutes, remove the compress or fomentation, re-soak the fabric or cotton, and reapply.
Make a poultice by mashing fresh blossoms, or strain fresh or dried blossoms after tea brewing, and apply to any wound to speed healing. Hold the poultice in place by hand for several minutes or with a bandage for an hour or more, then replace the plant material. Repeat as needed.
Apply calendula tincture full-strength to burns (it cools the injury quickly and speeds tissue repair) as well as to other wounds. To prepare a compress, dilute 1 part tincture in 3 parts water.
Apply calendula-infused olive oil to cuts and other injuries. The macerated oil softens skin and speeds healing.
Apply calendula salve to any cut, scrape, bite, or other injury, and use calendula salve or oil to protect your dog's paw pads from winter salt and ice.
Use homeopathic calendula gel or other homeopathic calendula remedies for the treatment of all conditions mentioned here.
CJ Puotinen is author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care, Natural Remedies for Dogs and Cats, and other books (see "Resources," page 24 for purchasing information). She lives in New York.
] What you can do...
Plant calendula in a sunny location and harvest blossoms for months.
Add fresh or dried calendula to your dog's food for improved digestion and overall health.
Brew calendula tea for use as a first-aid wash or spray.
Buy or make calendula salve or infused oil to treat skin conditions and paw pads.
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Calendula (pronounced/ Ca-lén-du-la), pot marigold, is a genus of about 12-20 species of annual or perennial herbaceous plants in the daisy family Asteraceae, native to the area from Macaronesia east through the Mediterranean region to Iran. Calendula should not be confused with other plants that are also known as marigolds, such as plants of the genus Tagetes, corn marigolds or marsh marigolds.
The name Calendula stems from the Latin kalendae, meaning first day of the month, presumably because pot marigolds are in bloom at the start of most months of the year. The common name marigold probably refers to the Virgin Mary, or its old Saxon name 'ymbglidegold', which means 'it turns with the sun'. Marigolds typically bloom quickly (in under two months) in bright yellows, reds, and oranges throughout the summer and well into the fall.
Marigolds are considered by many gardening experts as one of the most versatile flowers to grow in a garden, especially since it is easy to grow. Seeds sown in the spring, in most soils, will germinate freely in sunny or half-sunny locations. They do best, however, if planted in sunny locations with rich, well-drained soil. The leaves are spirally arranged, 5-18 cm long, simple, and slightly hairy. The flower heads range from pastel yellow to deep orange, and are 3-7 cm across, with both ray florets and disc florets. They have a spicy aroma and are produced from spring to autumn in temperate climates. It is recommended to deadhead (removal of dying flower heads) the plants regularly to maintain even blossom production.
Marigold petals are considered edible. They are often used to add color to salads, and marigold extract is commonly added to chicken feed to produce darker egg yolks. Their aroma, however, is not sweet, and resembles the smell of hops in beer. The oil from its seed contains calendic acid
Plant pharmacological studies have suggested that Calendula extracts have anti-viral, anti-genotoxic and anti-inflammatory properties.  Calendula in suspension or in tincture is used topically to treat acne, reducing inflammation, controlling bleeding and soothing irritated tissue. There is "limited evidence" that calendula cream or ointment is effective in treating radiation dermatitis.
Calendula has been used traditionally for abdominal cramps and constipation. In experiments with rabbit jejeunum the aqueous-ethanol extract of Calendula officinalis flowers was shown to have both spasmolytic and spasmogenic effects, thus providing a scientific rationale for this traditional use. An aqueous extract of Calendula officinalis obtained by a novel extraction method has demonstrated anti-tumor (cytotoxic) activity and immunomodulatory properties (lymphocyte activation) in vitro, as well as anti-tumor activity in mice.