The Whip: A Homemade Moisturizer How-To from Making It

A quick little project: lavender infused moisturizer, two Calendula/plantain salves and a chamomile infused lip balm. Enough unguents to see me through Christmas.

Note 3/16/13: When I posted this I never expected this to become one of our most popular posts.  Since so many people are looking at this recipe, I feel like I should let you know a couple of things about it before you try it.

1) The first is that it is not perfect. I love it, but it may not be for everyone. It depends on your priorities. Mine are simplicity and purity of ingredients. I don’t care so much about consistency– or rather, simplicity trumps it. This means sometimes the recipe doesn’t work, and more often than not there’s some separation of water. This is “normal.”

2)  See, it’s not really possible to make a perfect lotion with these ingredients. Their union is not stable. I think my lotion might be defined as a temporary emulsification brought around by force.  To create something stable, like store bought lotions, you really need to use chemical emulsifiers /emulsifying waxes. And I’m not saying that’s bad–I personally am not interested in playing junior chemist. I use beeswax because we have a hive, and olive oil because it is on my shelf.  There’s many recipes out there that can show you how to make really smooth consistent lotions if you want to buy the ingredients.

3) One possibility for improving the emulsification in this recipe is combining the beeswax with a pinch of pharmaceutical grade borax. I haven’t tried this yet, because opinions are mixed on both the safety of borax and of the actual efficacy of the borax and beeswax combo. It’s a possibility, though.

4) Trying to get water to bind with oil is just plain difficult if you want to stick with really simple ingredients. A much easier option is to craft a body butter out of shea and/or cocoa butter and some high grade oils and use that as your primary moisturizer.

4) Finally, I am experimenting to see if I can improve the technique and instructions on this recipe to make more “bomb-proof.” So, I’d say go ahead and give this a try–it works for me and many others–but also check back to see if I come up with anything new.

Thank so much for your interest, your enthusiasm, and your patience!

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Confession: I can’t live without my homemade moisturizer. This is not true of all things. I like take-out food sometimes, and I prefer Ibuprofen to willow bark tea. However, I’ll never go back to store bought lotion.

This recipe appears in Making It as Olive Oil Whip. It’s my every day body lotion/face cream and I figured it was about time to share it with you. It only has three ingredients. It’s safe and wholesome and very effective. Heck, you could eat it!

You might find it heavier than what you’re used to, because it doesn’t contain all the chemical dryers that store-bought stuff has (see the Skin Deep database for the scoop on what’s in your favorite moisturizer). But I promise you that if you use it for a week you’ll get used to the difference–and then you’ll get hooked. My skin has never been so happy as it has since I started using this stuff, and I’m saving tons of money.

The Whip

Ingredients:

1/2 cup olive oil  (It’s particularly nice to make this with herb-infused oils, but it’s also very good with plain oil. I just made a batch with oil infused with lavender buds. Heavenly!)

2 tablespoons (.5 oz) of cosmetic grade beeswax, either in bead form or grated and packed into the spoons. (You can use vegan waxes instead).*

1 cup of tepid water, filtered or bottled or distilled is best.

Optional: Essential of your choice for scent, about 10 drops

*I know, I know, you have to buy wax, which is sort of a pain, but it’s very worth it because if you do, you can make salves and lip balm, too. If you have a honey person at your local farmer’s market, you might ask them. I also like the pastille (bead form) beeswax that they sell at Mountain Rose Herbs. It’s very convenient. If you get a block of wax, you’ll have to grate it. The charm of that wears off fast. It’s not such a good idea to use ground up candles or hardware store beeswax, because you just don’t know where it comes from.

Equipment:

You need a double boiler, an improvised double boiler–which would be a heat proof bowl balanced over a saucepan–or my favorite method, a Pyrex measuring cup sitting in a small saucepan.

You will also need a countertop blender or a powerful stick blender. A weak stick blender may not be up to the task. ETA: Since I’ve posted this recipe I’ve had a lot of feedback which indicates that a decent stick blender really is the best tool for the job, especially when used in a confined space, like the lotion’s jar, or a Pyrex cup (rather than, say, a mixing bowl).

A couple of clean and dry jars to store your lotion in. This recipe makes about a 1 1/2 cups.

Wax and oil heat up in Pyrex measuring cup in a saucepan. Our grimy stove is now immortalized on the Interwebs.

The Procedure:

Put the olive oil in your double boiler setup and add the wax. Heat over gently simmering water until the wax vanishes into the oil.

Meanwhile, measure out your tepid water. Cold water will make the lotion seize up too fast. Hot water makes the texture strange. Tepid water is what you want.

Optional step: I find it helps to pre-warm the blender jar by filling it with hot water prior to blending. See, some of the liquid wax will solidify when it hits the cool glass of the jar. This isn’t a huge problem, but you might scrape some of those chunky bits of wax into your finished lotion when you’re emptying out the blender. Heating it first minimizes the problem. So just fill it with hot water and let it sit until you’re ready to blend. Empty it out at the last second. You don’t have to dry it.

Get your blender or your stick blender all ready to go. Do a pre-flight on the blender. Make sure the ring at the bottom is tight. If you’re using a stick blender, you can actually blend the lotion in the jar you’re going to keep it in, which eliminates a lot of clean up.

With a stick blender you can make the lotion right in the jar.

Take the oil off the stove. Now is the time to stir in the essential oil if you’re using it. Don’t dink around and let it oil/wax moisture cool. Move promptly to the blender site and pour the oil into the blender or the container you’re using with the stick. Start your engines. Pour the tepid water in steady stream into the whirling oil. It will start coming together immediately. If the blender chokes, stop it, scrape down the sides and start it again. Incorporation should only take a few seconds. Look for unincorporated pockets of water and keep blending until they’re gone.

(Once in a rare while I’ll end up with a little water that just won’t incorporate because the emulsification process finishes and for whatever reason, it didn’t get included. If this happens, just pour it off. But generally you should be able to get the whole cup mixed in. You can experiment with using less water if you want. As you reduce the amount of water, the moisturizer will become more like a butter and less like a lotion. A ratio of equal parts water and oil makes a butter that is a really dense weather barrier, good for extreme conditions and outdoor activities.)

While the lotion is still warm, pour it into your chosen vessels. Leave the lids off until it cools. It will thicken some on cooling.

Storage:

This keeps at room temperature for at least a month or two. Signs of decay include texture changes, color changes and outright mold. I’ve only seen this happen in little jars of the stuff that I’ve used for travel and have forgotten about. I might go through my usual supply too fast for it to go bad. This is a natural product, though, so you should make it as you need it, rather than making it in bulk and expecting it to keep for a year.

Clean up:

Oil and wax can be tricky to clean off glass, and hard on your pipes, too. The secret, I’ve discovered, is baking soda. Shake some in and wipe it around. It picks up grease just like sawdust picks up vomit on a fairground midway. Dump the greasy soda lumps in the trash. Boiling hot water rinses help, too.

Last note:

This lotion and even more so the Silky Cream in Making It are good make-up removers/cold cream substitutes. You can slather this on and tissue it off to clean your face, or for a light moisture treatment.

Making Salves, Lip Balms & etc.: Close of the Calendula Series

My calendula after-bath salve. The camera refuses to capture the deep butter yellow color

On Saturday, as a part of this long series on Calendula (here, here and here), I posted about infusing oil with herbs.

If you’ve got some herb infused oil, you can make that into a medicinal salve or balm. Salve is nothing but oil thickened by the addition of wax. I prefer beeswax salves, though there are vegan alternatives, like candelilla wax. They are used similarly.

Of course, you don’t have to make salves with infused oils. Plain olive oil and beeswax are a powerful healing combination on their own, great for a no-nonsense lip balm or hand treatment. You can also use essential oils to bring herbal essences into a plain salve. 

Once you know how to make salve, you can not only make skin salves, you can make lip balm and headache balm and stick deodorant and homemade cosmetics. It’s a simple technique, but it opens a lot of possibilities.

My favorite herbal salve is made out of a mix of equal parts Calendula (pot marigold), chickweed (Stellaria media) and plantain (Plantago major) oils. These three work together to make an all purpose salve that is as good for gardener’s hands as it is for diaper rash or skin scrapes or bug bites or dry cuticles or badly chapped lips or mild sunburn or whatever. I always have a jar on hand and I give jars to friends and family.

Yesterday I made a batch of pure Calendula salve, a big jar of after-bath moisturizer. Like body oil, salve works best as a moisturizer if applied to wet skin. Calendula extracts are found in a lot of high end cosmetics because it’s a mild but effective skin herb. It’s anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, soothing, and helps skin regenerate. I love smoothing it from my cat-scratched ankles and my mosquito-bit knees up to my sun-baked face and arms.

How-to after the jump.

The Secret of Salve

The only secret to salve is that it is so darned easy to make.

The only equipment you need is some kind of double boiler situation: a true double boiler, a heat proof bowl balanced over a sauce pan, etc. What I usually do is put a Pyrex liquid measuring cup into a small pan of water. I set the burner on to medium heat and bring the water to a very gentle simmer. Thus the oil heats without overheating or burning.

To the oil I add a little bit of organic beeswax, and continue to heat and stir until the beeswax dissolves. That’s all there is to it, really, but I’ll explain the details.

First, let’s take a moment to talk about beeswax:

Where do you get the beeswax?  You can order it online, just search “organic beeswax”. I wouldn’t buy it in craft or hardware stores unless it’s marked as organic. Beeswax holds on to chemicals, so if the bees were working fields which were sprayed, traces of those chemicals could end up in your balm. Same goes for cannibalizing beeswax candles. I hope to get some nice clean wax from our hive soon, but in the meanwhile I buy my wax from Mountain Rose Herbs. It comes in both pellets and blocks. Pellets are a lot easier to work with.

Good organic beeswax smells heavenly, by the way, and that scent carries into the finished salve.

How much beeswax do you use?  Making salves is all about simple proportions–the ratio of oil to wax. 4 parts oil to 1 part wax yields a firm salve. You’d want this sort of proportion for roll up lip balm tubes or roll up deodorants, cases where firmness is a virtue.

If you don’t necessarily need a firm salve, you have a lot more latitude. 6 parts oil to 1 part wax makes a soft salve, better for scooping up with the fingers.

To tell the truth, even small amounts of wax wax will firm oil up to a sort of loose ointment consistency. For this Calendula bath salve I just made, I didn’t bother to  measure. I just added a heaping teaspoon of wax to my oil. The ratio must have been 10 or 12 to 1. I wanted something very soft.

So does this make sense? For instance, say I want to fill a particular tin with my skin healing salve. I measure the volume of the tin first, by spooning water into it. Say it holds six tablespoons. The easy math on this one would be to warm 5 tablespoons of oil plus 1 tablespoon of wax (5:1). That would work without resorting to teaspoons and fractions, but if I wanted a looser salve, I might short the wax measure.

Keep in mind it’s very easy to repair a too-hard or too-soft salve. Just reheat it and add more wax or more oil as needed. You can get some sense of how a salve is going to harden up by dropping the hot liquid onto a cold plate–just like jam.

Measuring beeswax: Because salve measurements don’t have to be precise, there’s a few ways to measure out wax. Measuring by the spoonful is easiest–spoonful of oil to spoonful of wax. If you have wax in the pellet form, just measure the pellets by the spoonful. If you have a block of wax, shave the wax and press the gratings into a spoon.

Alternatively, you could measure wax by displacement: pour oils into a measuring cup, then drop in pieces of wax until the liquid level meets the desired measure. For example, for a 6:1 ratio, fill a clear measuring cup to 6 oz. and then add wax chunks until the volume rises to 7 oz.  That equals 6 oz. of oil and 1 oz. wax.

Back to the melting:

Okay, so you’re warming your combined oil and beeswax in a double boiler-type situation, as described above. Once the wax has warmed enough in to dissolve and vanish into the oil, take the oil off the heat.When using herb infused oils, you want to treat them gently and heat them as little as possible.

Add essential oils:

If you want to add any scent, or if you’re into the healing properties of essential oils, this is the time to stir them in–right after you take the mix off the heat, but before you pour it.

For lip balms, I’ll add a few drops of peppermint essential oil. Do be careful with peppermint oil, though–too much will make your lips burn. Think something along the lines of 2 drops of of peppermint essential oil per small tin of lip balm. It’s easy to warm it again and add more if you want it stronger. Same goes for scents. Use a light hand. A few drops will do it in most cases.
 
Also, I should add that you can infuse oils with scented herbs, like dried lavender buds or rose geranium leaves or chamomile flowers. They’re not as strong as essential oils, but very nice in salves. And a lot cheaper. 

Here’s a hint regarding essential oils: For inspiration regarding what kind of essential oils might go into different types of salves, check out the product line at Badger Balm.

Pour into jars:

Once you’ve stirred in the essential oils, pour the liquid salve into clean, dry jars or tins. Make sure your containers are dry and clean. Dirt or water could lead to contamination and mold.

Pour it fast, before the mix starts to cool. I find that the lip of a liquid measuring cup gives enough control to fill even those fiddly little plastic lip balm tubes.

Let the containers sit, open, until they are completely cool. Then lid them and label them.

Clean up:

The best way I’ve found to deal with the waxy grease residue (since I stopped using paper towels) is to shake a generous amount of baking soda into the dish and then rub it around. The soda lifts and traps the grease. It works like a charm.

Shelf life:

To be honest, I’m not sure what the expiry date is on these things. I’ve never had a salve go bad, but they do lose potency and scent. Also, a salve or lip balm that’s being used is exposed to a lot more bacteria than one which is unopened. I’d say the unopened ones could last 6 months to a year, but once you open a tin or jar and start sticking your fingers in it, you should use it up in a few months.

 Self promotional note: We cover all this stuff in much more detail in Making It: salves, lip balm, deodorant, etc. –with proper measurements and everything!

How to make a Calendula oil infusion

Love that golden orange color. It’s prettier in real life.
So finally I get around to finishing off this mini series on Calendula (pot marigold). This post will be on infusing oil, and next week we’ll have the one on salves.
We’ve already covered the growing and drying Calendula:
Oil infusion is as simple as can be.  Oil infusion is soaking. Think of it like making sun tea. You take a nice clean jar with a good lid, and fill that about half way full of dried herb, top it off with oil, and let that sit in the sun.
The resulting oil is medicinal. It can be used straight on the skin, or fashioned into salves and balms. I’m particularly fond of Calendula. As a skin treatment it displays regenerative properties, making it really helpful for healing dry, scraped up, or otherwise damaged skin.
 But lets step backwards a bit and talk about materials. 


Materials

Your herb–Calendula or anything else– should be dry when you start this. It should crumble between your fingers. If there’s any flexibility to leaf or flower, that means there’s still water in there.  The reason you don’t want water in there is that spoilage in oil infusions usually comes about because of the presence of water in the plant material. Spoilage can result in anything from off smells to mold to–worst case scenario–botulinum toxin in the oil. 
Now, to be sure, I know folks who infuse fresh herbs in oil, and they’re not all dropping dead. This is like the prohibition against infusing oil with fresh garlic cloves. Garlic oil tastes really good, and lots of people have done it for a very long time, but, theoretically, bad things can happen because of the water in the garlic (i.e. botulism), so it’s not recommended by the Powers that Be. So it’s up to you–I’m just not going to encourage it.
Regarding Calendula specifically, you can soak either the petals alone, or the whole flower heads. Either way is fine. Just make sure the green part of the heads is truly dry.
Your oil doesn’t have to be super high grade. I use un-virgin olive oil–not the lowest, motor-oil sort of grade–just something a little more experienced than extra virgin. This is also a matter of preference. You can use organic, cold pressed, locally sourced extra, extra virgin oil, for sure. It’s just an expensive proposition. Since I make these oils in quantity, I use the less expensive oil and save the good oil for salads. 
It doesn’t have to be olive oil, either, but it should be something good for the skin, like jojoba oil or grapeseed oil. I don’t recommend common cooking oils, like corn or canola. Some people infuse into petroleum jelly (making insta-balm), but that makes me shudder. I’ve not tried infusing coconut oil, but I imagine it would work great. 
The Soaking
All you have to do is fill a very clean jar with a good lid about half way full of dried herb,  then top it off with oil.

If the herb you’re using is very fluffy, and as a result has a lot of air around it–imagine a jar of dry chamomile buds, for instance–you can fill the jar almost to the top with dried matter.

This not an exact science, so don’t get worked up about exact quantities. The only thing you should keep in mind in terms of measurement is that you’ll get less oil out than you put in. The herbs soak up a good bit of the oil, and don’t give it all back. Also keep in mind that you don’t need to make a ton of this stuff unless you’re planning on selling it, or doing a big Christmas project. Salve stretches a long way. A jam jar–the kind that holds 1 cup–is not too small for an experimental go at this.

Now wait
Cap the jar tight and let the plant matter infuse in oil for about a month. The best place is in a sunny window, where it gets some heat and light. Very gentle warming is the idea. You can take your jars outside when the weather is good. When the sun is hiding, I’ll put my jars on the stove top, where there’s constant warmth from the pilot light. 
Give the jar a shake every now and then.
There are other ways to do this. Some people simmer on the herbs and oil on the stove top. I avoid this because plant essences are so delicate and heat sensitive. A crock pot is more controlled, but I don’t have one of those. In Making It I wrote about a technique involving alcohol, the blender, and the stove. It’s tricky, but it will yield finished oil fast. But here at home, I like the simplicity of the long soak. It doesn’t take any energy, and hardly any attention.  
Harvest
Above I said about a month–that’s loose, because again, it’s an inexact science. I’m sure you’d have something useable in a couple of weeks, and I will confess I’ve often forgotten about my oils and left them more than a month with no ill effects. 3 to 4 weeks is ballpark. 
Strain the oil from the dried matter. I used to do this very, very carefully with a tea strainer or with a muslin bag. Now I have the blessed canning funnel.  I line that with various strainers, depending on how clean I want the oil. I have a fairly loose strainer that’s good for big stuff, like Calendula blossoms. Tea baskets fit in there as well. And for very fine straining I can line the strainer with cheese cloth or muslin.
Strain the oil into a fresh, clean jar. Pour off the oil first, then press the dried matter to squeeze out the remaining oil as best you can. You’ll never get it all back.
Label it 
Make sure you label it with the type of oil and the date it was made. Believe me, even if you only make one jar, you’ll forget what it is and when you made it, and a year later you’ll be standing at your cupboard, puzzling over it.

Store

Store the oil in a dark place. Use it up within a year, the sooner the better, to take advantage of the Magick Herb Power.

Of course you should not use oil that smells rancid or looks funny. Smell your herbs and oils as you’re working with them! If you’re familiar with them, you’ll know easily that they’ve gone off.

Don’t throw away old or even rancid oil, by the way. Burn it in oil lamps. That’s a whole ‘nother project that we should cover here. It’s the first project in Making It.

Harvesting and Drying Calendula

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Okay, so in a previous post I talked about growing Calendula. This post I’m going to talk about harvesting and drying it. The next post I’ll do on the topic will be about making a skin-healing salve from the dried petals, olive oil and beeswax.

When to harvest: 
Start harvesting your Calendula as soon as the first flush of flowers is in full bloom. Don’t try to “save” the flowers. The more you harvest, the more flowers each plant will put out.  After the first cutting, you can probably return to harvest more every 3 days or so.
The ideal time to harvest is in the morning, before it gets warm, but after the dew dries. You want them all fresh and perky and at their peak. This is traditional wisdom. However, I believe it’s better to harvest when you can than not at all, so I harvest at all times of day.
A side note regarding seeds:
If you don’t harvest the heads, they die back on their own, and then they’ll go to seed fast. If you don’t like the idea of Calendula volunteering all over your yard the following year, you’ll want to collect all the heads before they die back. However, you may also want to monitor them carefully and collect ripe seed for planting the next year (you want to collect the seed when it’s brown, not green).  And if you want to keep track of such things, if you make a point of saving seed only from the plants with the best blooms, your favorite colors, etc., over generations you can breed your own line of Calendula.
Alien beauty. A seed head in its early stages. The seeds are the green things that look like bugs.
What parts to harvest:
I harvest the flower heads only, though I understand that the foliage has much the same properties as the flowers. If I were short on plants, and knew I’d get few flowers, I’d harvest and dry the leaves to make up that lack. Given a choice, though, I prefer the flowers, just because they’re good for cooking and decoration as well as my salves. People used to eat Calendula leaves (they’re known as “pot marigolds” because they used to go into the cooking pot), but I’ve tasted them, and I don’t think I’ll be making them part of my diet unless I have to.
To harvest, I either pinch off the heads or cut off the heads with scissors. This often leaves a long, beheaded stem behind. That stem can be trimmed back to the first set of leaves, for the sake of aesthetics. Or not. (ETA: A commenter recommends that you always cut the stem back to the first set of leaves, so the stem does not become a conduit for rot. Makes sense.)
How to dry:
Bring the flower heads indoors, into an area out of direct sunlight. Don’t wash the heads.

Spread the heads out face down on a dishtowel or a sheet or newspaper or for fancy, an old window screen stretched between two chairs. I find laying out the heads an oddly satisfying activity.
Of course, if you have a dehydrator you could use one of those. Calendula should never be subjected to high heat, so oven drying is out of the question. Set your dehydrator to 90-95 degrees F.  
If you’re air drying, turn the flowers over every so often. Keep them out of direct sunlight.
They’ll shrink quite a bit as they dry, so you’ll have room to keep adding fresh specimens as they come in.
When are they dry enough?:
They must be completely and absolutely dry before they go into storage. Believe me when I say this is important. A couple of years ago I was impatient and put a few chamomile buds which must have been not-quite-dry in to a jar with the rest of my (painstaking) chamomile harvest. The next time I opened that quart jar I got a big nasty whiff of mold. I almost cried.
So–the flowers must be dry. They should be fragile, crispy and very dry, like crepe paper. Make a habit of feeling them at different stages of drying to develop sensitivity in your finger tips. You’ll notice that when they’re not quite dry they’ll *look* dry but when you touch them they are a bit cool compared to a truly dry flower. In other words, you can feel the water in them. Leave those for another day or so.
The green part, the flower head to which the petals are attached, dries more slowly than the petals themselves, because it has a greater mass. Be cautious of this. If you’re going to store the heads whole, then you need to allow extra time for the green parts to dry.  Which brings me to the next item:
To pluck or not to pluck:
There isn’t a right or wrong here. Everybody does it different. 
If you plucked all the petals off the heads when you first brought them indoors, those petals would dry very fast. But that, in my frank opinion, would be a pain. It would be like playing a game of “He loves me, He loves me not” that lasted for hours.
If you want to leave the petals on the heads that’s fine. The heads (green parts) have medicinal properties too, so you can use them whole. The only thing is that you must make sure those heads are completely dry before you store them, as I said above.
What I do is is wait until the petals are dry, then I pluck them from the heads, to avoid the whole “is the head still damp?” issue. When the petals are dry, they come off the head very easy. In fact, the ease with which they come off the head is an indicator of their dryness. If they’re resistant at all, they’re not dry. To work in bulk, you can take a whole bunch of dry heads and put them in a bowl and rub them between your hands. The petals will fall off. The heads will collect at the bottom of the bowl, because they are much heavier than the petals. Or you can strip them by hand. When they’re dry, this only takes a single gesture.
Only the driest petals go in the jar. All that debris around the jar is stuff that’s not dry enough yet.
Can you use the flowers fresh?:
Yes. And no. Depends. The next step in this series of posts is the making of an oil infusion.  I never put anything “wet” in oil, because of the slight chance that botulinum toxin might develop in the oil.  Herbalists who I respect put fresh matter in oil nonetheless, and I envy them, because I suspect they’re getting more out of the plant by doing so. But I’m not going to take that risk–or write about it if I do. This is just safer. 
You can use the flowers fresh other ways. You can make them (and the foliage) into a tea, which you could use as a skin wash for sunburn or irritation–or drink. Fresh flowers could go into your bathwater to make a soothing bath. Fresh flowers can also be soaked in alcohol to make a tincture.  
Storage:
I keep my very dry herbs in sealed mason jars in a dark cupboard. You don’t want to expose any dried herb to sunlight for any length of time. I use jars because I don’t take any chances with pantry moths (it’s amazing what they’ll get into). The risk with jars, as I’ve said, is that if the herbs aren’t perfectly dry, you’ll get mold. This is why other people opt to keep their dried herbs in paper bags–bags breathe a bit, so lessen the chance of mold. This is a good option, too.
I try to switch out my dried herbs every year–at least the ones I grow. Some of the things in my cupboard are older than that. I think some herbs keep their properties longer than others, but in general you should try to use them in a year or so. Like spices, the are best fresh, but usable, if not as potent, as they age. 

Label and date all your herbs. Even if you think you’ll never forget, somehow or another you will, and at some future find yourself standing at your cupboard, holding a jar full of strange plant matter and saying to yourself, “What is this?”

Why not plant some Calendula?

Calendula glows like the sun.

Mrs. Homegrown here, leaving the composting controversy behind…

One of my favorite plants in the garden is Calendula officinalis, aka pot marigold. It should not be mistaken for common marigold, or Mexican marigold, both of which are in the genus Tagetes. Tagetes marigolds are popularly used in companion planting (to ward off bugs in the garden), and for combating nemadtodes in the soil. Calendula is for helping people.

I grow Calendula in order to make lotions, balms and salves. I’m a firm believer in its healing power, my belief based on the happy response by family and friends who use my salves. Calendula is anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It soothes, heals and helps regenerate skin. You’ll find Calendula extract as an ingredient in expensive beauty products, but you can make your own Calendula salve for pennies. I’m going to come back to how to do that in a later post, but first, I want to talk about planting Calendula so you can get some going in your own yard (or on your balcony) this spring.


Planting Calendula:

Calendula is beautiful and easy to grow, even for beginners. It’s not at all picky and will adapt to various soils and light conditions like a trooper, though–like most things–it does best if planted in rich, loose soil and given full sun. Even if you’ve had bad luck with flowers in the past, try Calendula. I’d be surprised if it let you down.

It’s technically a short lived perennial, so in very mild climates it might be a permanent garden flower, However, it doesn’t live through freezes or extreme heat. Here is southern California it’s a self-seeding annual. It seeds like crazy, so if you don’t want volunteers all over your yard, trim off the spent blooms–”deadhead” them–before they go to seed. (Calendula seed is trippy: big, gnarly crescent shaped pods, each one a little different–very unlike most seed, which is quite conformist.)

It does very well when grown from seed planted directly in the ground. In years past I’ve let Calendula range all over the yard as casual volunteers, all descended from some long forgotten planting, so obviously it’s not particular about planting conditions.

However, when it came time Phan of Pharmacy ™,  I wanted to start fresh, so I bought seeds. And I wanted to start the seeds while I was preparing the ground, so I started the seeds in flats and transplanted the seedlings when they were about three or four inches high. This worked very well. Calendula isn’t particularly pest-prone, but some things will munch on it, particularly when it’s small. Transplanting the seedlings when they were larger may have given them the oomph to withstand attacks. They also didn’t mind the shock of transplanting–I had no losses.

The Rundown on Calendula:

  • When to plant: Almost any time after frost: early spring into early summer. It doesn’t do well in scorching heat, so the earlier the better.
  • Where to plant: As above, it’s not too picky about soil. You want part to full sun. 
  • How deep to plant: About a 1/4″.
  • How far apart:  If planting in flats, seeds can be close, maybe 3 or 4 inches. If you’re planting straight into the ground you need to consider the final size of the plant, and how close you want them together. I like mine close, so in the Phan they are about 8″ apart. I think 8″ to 1 foot is a good range.
  • How big is it? Depends. A foot or so high, maybe more if it’s older or very happy, and probably about a foot across. 
  • Water: Calendula needs regular water. The one thing you have to do is remember to water it.
  • Fertilizer: You don’t really need it, but if you’ve got some nice compost you can spread some around the plants. 
  • Harvest: To save flowers for medicine, pick them when they’re open and at their peak. Don’t worry about picking too much. Picking just forces them to send out more flowers. Not picking is what leads to plants going to seed and closing up shop. Take the heads inside and dry them face down out of direct light. When dry enough to be crunchy, strip the petals and transfer to jar.
  • Pots: Calendula takes well to containerized life. Try it in pots or window boxes. It would do well in self-irrigating container, too.
  • Seeds: Look around for interesting flowers. As long as the seed pack reads “Calendula officinalis” you’ve got the right stuff. This year I planted the “Pacific Beauty Blend” from Botanical Interests and like them quite a lot. They have a wide range of colors, from almost cream to bright yellow to this cool peach color to the classic vibrant orange. Some of them are beautifully double flowered, others have more of the traditional daisy thing going on.
The seeds and some heads brought in from the garden for drying.

One last note: Calendula is edible. It’s not flavorful, but it’s fun to add the petals to salads. Dried calendula leaves look a little like saffron and can also be used in cooking for color. Calendula also can be brought indoors as a cut flower.