My very first attempt at making an ointment was with marigolds – more properly known as Calendula Officinalis. Calendula has a mighty reputation as a healing herb, especially for skin complaints.
In my Encyclopedia of Herbs by the Royal Horticultural Society (no less), it states that calendula is used medicinally for the following external purposes:
- herpes (I presume, cold sores)
- athlete’s foot
- varicose veins
- minor injuries, and
- ‘skin problems.’
Quite the list. Pharmacology studies seem to support these traditional uses, with marigolds noted as having: anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties. When macerated in methanol it’s antibacterial; in ethanol (alchohol) it’s antifungal AND antibacterial.
Nicolas Culpeper, the famous sixteenth century herbalist, labelled it the ‘herb of the Sun’ and had this to say:
The juice of Marigold leaves mixed with vinegar, and any hot swelling bathed with it, instantly gives ease, and assuages it. The flowers, either green or dried, are much used in possets, broths, and drink, as a comforter of the heart and spirits, and to expel any malignant or pestilential quality which might annoy them.
It may benefit a range of internal illnesses but isn’t recommended for anyone who’s pregnant. That said, it’s widely used in foods as a colouring alternative to saffron. It gives a lovely golden hue to dairy foods, rice and cakes. (Indeed, it’s also used as a textile dye.)
The petals also had a wonderful splash of colour to salads. They can also be used to brew a tea with a particular reputation for treating sore throats.
A number of sources claim marigolds are originally from Mexico, brought to Europe by the Spanish. This doesn’t tally with references to marigolds in Pliny (under the name of Calta) and Virgil in his Natural History.
After a bit of further research, I uncovered the source of the confusion: two different species!
The European is Calendula Officinalis – often called pot marigolds. The Aztec marigold, however, is Tagetes Erecta. There are several tagetes species – all from the New World. These also have medicinal properties but are quite different to the calendula species and care should be taken not to mix these up.
To be strictly accurate, tagetes are now what people tend to think of as marigolds. Although the Encyclopaedia of Essential Oils by Julia Lawless is adamant that the ‘true’ marigolds are calendula.
Calendula Cream is widely available in health stores. There are also plenty of recipes to make your own online. Whipping the recipe below with a stick blender will turn the salve into more of a cream.
My research, however, was to look at what might have gone into a medieval calendula salve for a herbalist in southern France.
For her, the key ingredients would be:
- dried calendula petals (totally dry)
- olive oil and/or almond oil (the latter is ‘sweeter’ in scent but tends to go rancid in warmer weather)
- essential oils for scent*
- Infuse the dried petal in oil/s until completely submerged. Cover and steep for a few weeks in a warm place, then strain.
- Add beeswax to the oils and heat gently (over a double-boiler is best) until the beeswax is fully melted. Stir to combine.
- Remove from heat and add the essential oil. Pour into a pot. Cool before use.
*The first use of steam distillation to produce essential oils is attributed to Ibn Sina (westernised as Avicenna) in Persia around AD 1000. When Crusaders returned home, scents such as rosewater came with them. The earliest recorded details distillation methods for perfume, however, was by Ibn al-Baitar (1188–1248) in Al-Andalusia.
So, adding an essential oil as we know it is out for my heroine. More likely, she would take something such as lavender or frankincense and use a vegetable oil (as above) to create a perfume. This process is called ‘enfleurage.’