Foraging in the olive grove: Poor man’s saffron (Wild Calendula)

wild calendula marigolds tuscany

Wild calendula growing in the olive grove

Every morning when we arrive at the olive grove we are greeted by hundreds of orange-yellow flowers outstretched for the sun. The flowers follow the sun, and by the early evening are tightly closed, reminding us that it’s nearly time to down tools and return home. Field marigolds, or Calendula arvensis, have single flowered heads and toothed, slightly hairy leaves. They are considerably smaller than pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis), but for culinary and medicinal purposes they are interchangeable.

Calendula arvensis grows wild throughout the Mediterranean basin, and it seems to have a particular penchant for olive groves. In the Montalbano area, where we have our field, entire hillsides are currently speckled with gold.

wild calendula marigolds in olive grove in Tuscany, Italy

A carpet of calendula

Picking and Drying Calendula

Usually it pains me to pick wild flowers, but calendula can be picked guilt-free, as removing the flower heads encourages the plant to produce further blooms. Calendula is an annual, so I also left plenty of flowers on the plants to go to seed and ensure next year’s crop. The flowers should be picked in the morning, once the dew has dried.

wild calendula marigolds flower heads picked

Harvested calendula flowers

I find it easier to remove the petals once the flower heads have dried. To dry the flowers, spread then on baking paper or cloth and keep them out of direct sunlight until they are completely dry – this should take a week –10 days. Once the flower heads are dry they will be papery to the touch and can be easily pulled from the flower head – any sign of resistance and they’re not quite ready.

calendula marigold flower heads drying

Calendula flower heads drying

Cooking with and Using Calendula

The use of calendula for culinary and medicinal purposes goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who used it as a culinary seasoning, as well as to heal wounds and bites (among other medical applications).

Due to its strong orange colour and slightly bitter taste, calendula has traditionally been used as a substitute for saffron, hence the folk name zafferano dei poveri, or poor man’s saffron. Both dried and fresh petals can be used to add flavour, colour, or, as with all edible flowers, simply to brighten a simple dish. It can be stirred into soups or risotto, sprinkled on salads, or infused in boiling water for 5-10 minutes to make a tea which is supposedly good for stomach problems.

Calendula has also traditionally been used therapeutically as a treatment for a multitude of skin conditions – applied topically to prevent infections, soothe inflammation and heal wounds. Since we have so much olive oil lying around my next project is to infuse some with the dried petals and make a calendula balm…

dried wild calendula arvensis field marigold petals flowers poor man's saffron

Dried calendula petals

13 responses to “Foraging in the olive grove: Poor man’s saffron (Wild Calendula)

  1. Last summer I filled a mason jar full of dried calendula and olive oil and left it in a dark closet to infuse. I use the infused oil to make my own skin slaves & butters for my poor dehydrated desert skin and beat up rock climbing/gardening hands. The projects are endless.

    • How long did you leave it to infuse? I definitely want to make some hand cream to stop my city-girl hands turning into farmer’s hands, and calendula + extra virgin olive oil is meant to be a great combination for aftersun, which I’ll definitely need here!

      • Infuse at least 3 months up to a year. I also do the same thing with dried comfrey, another great healing herb.

  2. Not sure you need to infuse as long as 3 months to be honest – 2-3 weeks is enough to get the goodness from the plants (that goes for any plant). I make a balm with calendula-infused oil as well as using it in face creams. Didn’t know you could use it as a poor man’s saffron though in cooking – since I have a steady supply in my garden (near Bordeaux), I shall definitely try it out. Having said that, I have a recipe in a Jekka McVicar herb book for sweet Marigold buns. Basically a Victoria sandwich sponge mix, adding 1 1/2 tbs fresh marigold petals. Turn the mixture into greased bun tins or paper cases then sprinkle a few petals onto each bun with a little sugar and bake in the oven (gas 3 or 160°C) for 25-30 mins.

    • Thanks for the advice! Good to know that I can start using the infused oil soon! Sweet marigold buns sound lovely, I’ll give them a try. Aside from anything else I love the colour that the petals bring to dishes.

  3. you can do it the same with fresh flowers. pick flower from 11 am to 1pm because the most oil is formed in that time. only 45 days for staying in olive oil on sun. more time then 45 days and oil can be spoiled.
    it’s tradition in croatia to make oil from calendula and on the same way we do it with saint john wart.
    i know many recipes if someone interested i can give to my daughter to translate
    sory on bad english.

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