From Obscurity to Greatness: Calendula

From Obscurity to Greatness: Calendula


Her Backstory

Slow and steady wins the race, the famous fable of Aesop. Like Aesop, my deeply admired plant crush is also from the Mediterranean (and is probably older than Aesop himself). At least that is what modern botanists think, but then again, the record keeping thousands of years B.C.E. didn’t really turn out to be geared toward multi-century survival. One thing we do know, is that among the earliest global human records of medicine, she was always on the playlist. Still today, she is widely used in many plant based treatments, yet, she just hasn’t caught on to being a household name. Perhaps I can help her out a bit with that. Let me tell you a little about my plant friend and her backstory.  Or you can listen to her story on our plant powered podcast: Kiss My Grass. 
The magical happy healing plant is widely known today as calendula. There are of course several species of calendula that vary in their colors and some of their phytonutrients, however for the sake of this blog, I will be focusing on Calendula officinalis. 
One phenomenon that occurs with being famous across the world and across the centuries, are the the many names that people come up with for you. Some common aliases include: (Calendula, 2021). 
  • Marigold, Pot marigold, Holligold/Holigold, Goldbloom/Gold-bloom, Golds, Mary Bud/Marybud, Ruddes, Mary Gowles, Garden/English/African/American/Aztec Marigold
  • Spanish: Caléndula, Mercadela, Coronilla, Virreyna Caléndula, Cempasúchil, Pericón, Flor de Muerto, Cincollagas
  • Nahuatl: Cempoalxóchitl
  • Maya: Ix-ti-pu
Just for fun, let's take a look at its official name, Calendula. Like many English language words, the meaning is rooted in Latin. The Latin word of Calends can be loosely translated to ‘tiny clock’ or ‘calendar’. The reference being, something that occurs regularly on a relatively short interval. In Rome, the Calends was also the term used for the first day of the month of the Roman calendar and in sync with the lunar cycle. It also happens to be the rate at which this happy plant blooms. Monthly. It also meant that it was readily and reliably available to consume. Because of this regular blooming, the plant was considered a sign of joy, bounty, and certainty. The Romans named it calendula, the joyous flower.  
Consume they did. Calendula has been used for centuries in cooking, medicine, celebrations, and ceremonies. It is well documented in its use and cultivation along the trade routes of all the  early Mediterranean civilizations.
I find it quite compelling that in Egypt, archeologists found  complete beauty recipes for skin applications containing calendula (Laurel, 2017). Even more engaging is that these recipes were carefully conserved and preserved by the ancient people along side their records of mathematics and astronomy (Laurel, 2017). How fun is that? Not only were the Egyptians smart, industrious, but they also cared deeply about beauty. Caring so deeply, in fact, they used their limited resources of literate scholars to preserve their precious skin care recipes on papyruses and carefully seal them into ceramic pots for the journey into the afterlife. Now wonder Madonna loved the Egyptians so much, they didn’t want their beauty party to end when their mortal life did. Just like the Egyptians, calendula is clever, powerful, and beautiful. The powers and beauty of this plant have seduced humans for centuries and propelled its fame to world wide cultivation.
Meanwhile on the other side of the globe, unbeknownst to the inhabitants of the Americas, a slow motion train wreck was about to unfold. Because of with the growing strength of the colonizing countries in Europe, the profound herbal knowledge of the Native Americans was about to be in danger. An invasion of not only armies, but more importantly their diseases that would ultimately decimate thousands of civilizations and their knowledge. Unfortunately the cultural knowledge of much of the Americas was passed down through oral history, and when the people died, much of their knowledge was lost. However, before that tragedy began, the Aztecs were busy crafting their mastery of plant power and the life saving measures of herbal medicines, with sophistication that would suggest they were much further advanced in medicine than their European counterparts.  

This all played out when the colonizing explorers finally set sail, they intended to bring back riches and a scouting reports to their majesties. The earliest Western record of the Aztecs using Calendula dates back to the 16th century in a text known as the Florentine de Sahagun, which was written by Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagun. In his document of the culture and customs of the Aztec People for the monarchy of Spain, he detailed his astonishment of the healing powers of the elders. In this text, he recorded the Aztec’s vast knowledge about herbal medicine and making careful to highlight the important role of flor de muerta, calendula, plays in medicine and rituals (Estas, 2018). The Friar was the first to document several cultures of the Americas, their traditions and their medicines. He spoke of magical powers of their potions. Without a science background to understand these treatments, it must have seemed like magic to be able to heal people with plants. At this time in history, his own culture did not understand how to heal wounds without infection, preform minor surgeries, or treat basic ailments with success to the degree and consistency of the native peoples. 
  Moving along in history, the powers of healing that calendula offered continued to be be used.   During the American Civil war, there are records and recipes of field physicians using calendula flowers to treat wounds. I wonder how they figured this out? I wonder if some knowledge of the local natives survived to teach these physicians? I wonder this, because at the time, herbal medicine was not taught in the limited schooling for doctors. The documentation of its antiseptic properties, its ability to slow bleeding, and the speeding of healing wounds seemed to surprise them, even confound their knowledge because plants were still seen as inferior treatment options. (Calendula, 2021). Luckily for the soldiers, they kept on with using their unconventional plant friend, and this probably helped many people and ease a whole lot of suffering. 
Although the mechanism of how calendula slows bleeding isn’t completely understood, it is thought that the flavonoids speed up the clotting cascade as well and increase oxygenation to the surrounding tissues (Aorora). Wether it was through folklore, tradition, or experienced results, calendula was cultivated near military outposts for the purposes of medicine, and that speaks volumes to her popularity. Her legacy was becoming cemented in the new American culture as it had for so many peoples and civilizations before them. 

How She Works in the Skin

Calendula’s capacity to nourish and heal skin is well documented. Just to make a vivid point, let me submit of my first evidence of such powers with a study that was conducted on 111 episiotomy patients. OUCH! In this study, these suffering new mothers were randomly assigned the ‘typical’ episiotomy treatment of antibacterial cleanser and pain pills, or the ‘treatment’ group with 2% calendula extract in ointment added to the ‘typical’ treatment (Jacobi, 2004). In this trial, the calendula treatment group requested less pain medicine, had less swelling, less bruising, and healed faster than the control group (Jacobi, 2004). Anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of an episiotomy would vouch that any little bit of help is greatly appreciated! Another win for calendula. 
The flowers, leaves and stems all contain a huge amount of yummy skin food. There are several hundred documented phytonutrients in calendula. When it comes to wound healing, the most powerful players are the high concentration of terpenes. They are nimble tiny molecules that penetrate deep into the skin and are absorbed inside the cells. In fact, one study they identified 76 separate terpene molecules in one species of calendula (Ahmed, 2012). That is at least five times the variation of terpenes compared to the typical flower. Wow, what a profile. If Calendula had a Tinder account, you would swipe right for all those terpenes!

Known super terpenes such as alpha-bisobolol, borneol, thymol, alpha-terpineol, genipin and aucubin, all play an important role in wound healing. A couple bored scientists took the time to research, and out of nearly 2,000 studies they searched for terpene use and wound healing effects. No, they were not trying to prove that plants are awesome, we already know that. They were trying to identify biomolecules they could copy in a lab and make new drugs. What they found just reemphasizes that plants are amazing and humans are not that great of ‘doing it better’. No, really, what they found is quite interesting and its worth a read if you want to really learn how terpenes increase wound healing on a cell by cell interaction (Barreto, 2014). I’ll attempt to summarize the findings.  


The wound healing begins with its anti-inflammatory effects. Terpenes slow down leukocyte migration, cytokine suppression, and modulates prostaglandin synthesis; all are responsible for swelling (Barreto,2014). Reduced swelling allows the skin structure to contract to its normal state and allows for increased blood flow to the injury. Increased blood flow to the wound allows for skin building molecules traveling in the  blood to arrive at the site where they are needed to rebuild new cells (Darvin, 2011).
Many of the terpenes in Calendula are COX enzyme and IL inhibitors. This helps with its anti-inflammatory properties as well as explains its mild pain relieving effects (Barreto, 2014).  Additionally these terpenes speed up the healing process by increasing extracellular signal-activations of cellular migration (Darvin, 2011). This allows the newly forming skin cells to move into position at the wound site faster. It is like giving them a bit of espresso, and these cells literally crawl faster to the site of broken skin and quicken the healing efforts.

But Can She Help Me be Beautiful? YES

If you are not treating a wound, then why would you use calendula? I turns out, she was used for beauty too. What part of the plant helps the skin be its best beautiful healthy self? I’ll give you a hint; what gives calendula its vibrantly celebrated color?
Yes, the same molecules that give calendula petals its orange color are also a secret weapon free radical neutralization. Free radicals, or otherwise known as reactive oxidative species (ROS) are created inside our skin cells naturally just by normal  metabolism. Extra free radicals are created when the skin cells are extra stressed by absorbing UV radiation, air pollution or exposed to our own stress hormones. I like to imagine free radicles like toddlers. Under normal circumstances with one or two toddlers in my home I can keep up the mess they create and neutralize their temper tantrums. However, if there are too many over stimulated toddlers  they will tear my house apart leaving behind a disheveled mess. I simply cannot keep up with them no matter how hard I try. Thus leaving me with a dysfunctional house and likewise a dysfunctional aging cell. 
Our body creates and uses carotenoids to lend a hand and calm down the free radicles. This protects the cells DNA and also allows the cell to function normal and be as healthy as possible. Human skin contains carotenoids, such as α-, γ-, β-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene (Darvin, 2011). Each of our carotenoids enters the skin cells, they are like keys that either turn up or turn down important enzymes, the workforce of cellular functions. What happens to cells when there are not enough free-radical neutralizers to go around? Basically, they look ugly, disorganized, and die, caused by premature aging.  
The proposed pathophysiology premature aging from UV radiation is caused by oxidative stress which disrupts the signal transduction pathways. This part gets pretty nerdy, but for those who really want to know read along: first affected is the nuclear factor-kappa beta (NF-κB)/p65mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), the janus kinase (JAK), signal transduction and activation of transcription (STAT), and the nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (Nrf2), causing the damage to biomolecules and affecting the integrity of skin cells leading to skin damage (Bosch, 2015). Basically, the previously stated process upsets the structure of the skin cell which is damaged by inflammation from radiation. Just like microwave radiation is absorbed by food and the water molecules which begin to vibrate so fast the heat from their vibrating friction cooks the food (aka denaturing the proteins of the food). In our skin cells, the absorbed UV radiation creates free radicals  (ROS’s) which if left unchecked behave so badly they will also denature our cellular proteins described above causing cellular death. Sum it up; if we have too many free radicals our skin cells become weak, deflated, saggy, and susceptible to diseases because they spend so much of their energy to survive there is nothing left to fight off problems.   

For this exact reason, this is why it is important to limit the damage our skin is exposed to for our skin cells to look as healthy as possible for as long as possible. Not only should be be eating plenty of foods rich in colorful carotenoids, we can also combat the damage we expose our skin to through topical carotenoids from plants. I would’t go as far as saying that all carotenoids are interchangeable from one chemical structure to another, but their primary role is to help neutralize oxidative stress from free radicals. Whether it is in a carrot, a plant petal, or a skin cell, carotenoids are there to bind with reactive oxidative species (ROS) and clean up the cellar mess.  
Studies of the phytochemistry of calendula have revealed 20 different carotenoids!

(Real, 2009).  The most abundant carotenoid in calendula is beta-carotene (Balic, 2019). Beta-Carotene is classified as a pure non-polar hydrocarbon, and this molecular structure plays an important role in its’ bioactivity. In the skin, beta-carotene specially helps the by modulating UV light inducing gene expression which would typically induce inflammation and activate tumor forming enzymes (Balic, 2019). So basically. Beta-Carotene comes into a cell after it has been upset from UV radiation and calms it down, and prevents long term damage. 
Some of the other carotenoids identified in calendula have been shown to inhibit skin tumor formation, protection against UV induced erythema (swelling), activation of skin repair, and increased wound healing effects to name just a few (Balic, 2019). The moral of the story, not only should you ‘eat the rainbow’ to get carotenoids into your body, your skin could always use a little extra to keep it healthy and functioning properly. Fortunately, scientists proved you can go ahead and rub on extra carotenoids to get them straight to the site of action. 

Written by: Dr. Chantelle Davidson, Pharm.D
July 11th, 2021 - updated 9-15-2022

Learn more about the Author Chantelle in her profile: click here
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Balić, A., & Mokos, M. (2019). Do We Utilize Our Knowledge of the Skin Protective Effects of Carotenoids Enough?. Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland), 8(8), 259.
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Herbal Encyclopedia. Calendula. Viewed May 26th, 2021
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