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.
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.
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.
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…