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Pot Marigold: Sad Mary

By Audrey Stallsmith


The marigold which goes to bed with the sun
And with him rises weeping.

The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare

The marigold to which Shakespeare referred was not the French or African variety common in the U.S., but the flower we call calendula. In Europe, it is known as the common or pot marigold.

Other nicknames for the flower include golds, ruddes, gauchefer (because of its shield shape), Mary Gowles, oculus Christi ("eye of Christ"), sun's bride, sun's herb, and Jacke-an-apes on horse backe.

Calendulas track the sun in its course across the sky and close when it sets or is hidden by clouds. Perhaps this habit of mourning the sun's disappearance is why the marigold, despite its bright flowers, stands for grief and jealousy.

Or maybe that association arose because, as Macer puts it, "Golde is bitter in savour." Also the Victorians seem to have had a prejudice against orange or yellow blooms, most of which stand, in the Language of Flowers, for something unpleasant.

Gerard describes the leaves as being "large, fat, broad. . .and full of spungeous pith. The floures. . .are beautiful, round, very large and double of a light saffron colour, or like pure gold. . ." He also advises that the longer crooked seeds are more likely to produce single blooms.

Now as then, calendula is often an ingredient in soothing lotions and salves. But the ancients also enjoyed the petals as a flavoring for soups, so much so that grocers stocked the dried flowers by the barrelsful.

Fortunately for those retailers, the calendula is very easy to grow. Its name derives from the fact that, in some parts of the world, it can be counted on to be in bloom at the calends ("beginning") of every month in the year. Even in my Zone 5 climate, it will thrive from April until the first snow. It seems, in fact, to do its most prolific blooming during the fall months, and will often self-sow to blithely reappear in the spring.

Superstition held that this lowly flower could reveal the name of a thief--or prevent anyone from speaking against the bearer of it.

You can eat the fresh blooms in salads--the leaves too, if you can get past the acrid smell! To dry the petals, gather them on a warm day and spread them on paper in the shade.

An infusion of marigold flowers was often used to treat fevers, especially those associated with smallpox and measles. For those, Culpepper deemed it "a little less effectual than saffron." (More than a little less expensive too!)

It was also given internally to soothe ulcers and externally for varicose veins. The juice of the leaves mixed with vinegar was applied to hot swellings, especially toothaches, bee stings, and sprains.

That juice is said to be an effective laxative also. Snuffed, it will provoke sneezing and consequently clear the head of mucous. (There must be easier ways of relieving either type of congestion!)

Finally, Turner says that "some use to make their heyre yelow wyth the floure of this herb, not beyinge content wyth the natural colour which God hath gyven them."

For all its morbid associations, the calendula is a cheerful, unpretentious light-lover. We might do well to follow its example.

Plant plate is from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library