Herb of the Month – Calendula

At this time of year many herbs are flowering, but for some the flower is the main event – Lavender and Pot Marigold being just two examples.  Many people will grow these as a flower without ever considering their medicinal or culinary properties.

Although I have included the key medicinal qualities of each herb I have written about so far my expertise is in their culinary usage.  It has therefore been wonderful to meet a young couple growing herbs whose main interest is from the health and beauty perspective – the main focus of this month’s article.

A young couple’s first steps into farming

When Ben Lyons inherited a house with six acres on the top of Mendip at the age of 21, despite the advice from family to sell it, he was determined to live there and begin farming.  He was trained as a tree surgeon and his wife, Vicky, although always been a keen gardener, otherwise had no experience of farming.  With only six acres their options for making a living from the land were restricted.  They wanted to keep some livestock – pigs helped them clear a plot for growing and sheep graze the adjoining pasture.  They initially began selling vegetables to local pubs and restaurants, but soon decided to focus on the herbs as a higher value crop that takes little space to produce.  Having chosen their focus they believe that fate then gave them a helping hand because they got the opportunity to buy up the stock from a bankrupt herb farm.  It took a bit of a leap of faith however, because the snow was lying thick on the ground at the time of the sale and so it was impossible for them to assess the state of the plants they were buying, to know how many, if any, would have survived when the snow thawed.  However the gamble paid off – they had bought 6000 herb plants and there were a good array of varieties, most of which survived.

They have used the usual ways to introduce their herbs to local people – farmers’ markets, agricultural shows, farm and village shops etc.  However, it quickly become apparent that they needed to add further value to the herbs and this they have done by turning them into body products such as Dead Sea Salt scrubs, aromatherapy bath soaks and Shea butter moisturisers.  They have also just added online sales to the ways that customers can buy www.lyonsleaf.co.uk .

They have been very generous in sharing their knowledge, not just with me, but anyone who reads their website can learn how to make herbal beauty preparations for themselves.  The loss of traditional knowledge about using herbs was a large part of the motivation when starting this business.  Ben and Vicky acknowledge the value of modern medicines, but are concerned at how these have quickly displaced traditional knowledge and also at the corporate interests behind this.  Everyone needs to make a living, but this traditional knowledge is part of our heritage and owned by no-one.

Calendula

One plant runs through all of their products – Calendula (Pot Marigold).  It has been valued since antiquity for its healing and rejuvenating properties and used in many different cultures: Indian, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, through to the American Civil War where doctors on the battlefields used marigold leaves to treat open wounds.  The flowers contain antiseptic, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, which explains their reputation as promoting healing.  Calendula has been known to be used in treatments as diverse as spots and pimples, varicose veins, chilblains, impetigo, conjunctivitis, thrush, warts, corns and calluses.  Ben and Vicky ensure they grow all they need of this particular herb, although actually a little goes a long way – in their first year of selling beauty products a single row approximately 20 metres long was sufficient for everything they produced, although this year they have tripled the amount they have sown.  All of their products use 100% natural ingredients; in addition to herbs that they grow themselves they buy Shea butter and some essential oils.  The absence of water means that there is no need to use antimicrobials (e.g. parabens) and the Shea butter base also makes the products go much further than water based preparations.  All have a valid safety certificate.

Cultivation

You are unlikely to have to buy seeds more than once as they self-seed quite prolifically.  They will grow almost anywhere, unless the ground is very waterlogged, but best suit a sunny position because their cheerful faces will open and turn to the sun, much like sunflowers.  The heads will close again on damp and overcast days.  Deadhead the flowers to keep them coming throughout the summer.  They can be used as a decoy plant for whitefly, but do not confuse them with French or African Marigolds (Tagetes) which have other uses as in companion planting.

Culinary Uses

Although this is primarily a herbal flower to grow for health and beauty preparations, it can also be used in cooking.  The petals make a good culinary dye – a lot cheaper than saffron.  You could use it as a replacement in any dish that calls for saffron, although the taste is not there, the colour will be.

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