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Marigold, the Shrub of Bealtaine

No fear have I of Mother Earth; no dread, Of roots; the hidden sources of the seed. Those beauteous blossoms ranged in a bed, Of that damp underworld have primal need. Upon its chilly moist and dew they’re fed. Till in due season on their stalks they speed, Upwards with many a variegated head, Of roseate blooms; likewise do fruit and weeds. Thus do interred bones make beauteous blooms, And out of flesh, the spotted marigolds, Have I seen rising o’er neglected tombs, And so dead names are presently recalled. So withered skull the greenest verdure holds, And makes a whole patch glitter emerald.” – C. Price, Celtic Ballads and Chansons, 1912

Marsh marigold

Marsh Marigold, or Caltha palustris is also called kingcup, bassinets, water boots, water cowslip and Mary gold. Calendula, or Calendula officinalis is also called pot marigold, garden marigold, bride of the sun, or ruddles. Marsh Marigold is called lus-Muire, lus-Màiri or beàrnan-Bealltainn in Gaeilge and lus buí Bealtaine in Scots Gaelic. Calendula is called muire in Gaeilge and lus-màiri or neòinean-buidhe gàrraidh in Scots Gaelic. The Greek name for Marsh Marigold Caltha means ‘goblet’ while the Latin palustris means ‘of the marsh’. The common name Marsh marigold simply refers to the way in which it grows in marshy environments. The name calendula is a modern diminutive of the Latin word calendae which means ‘little calendar’. I have included marsh marigold and calendula together because from historical records it is very hard to tell which was which as they are both called ‘marigold’ and what further adds complication is that marsh marigold are not edible raw but require cooking 2 to 3 times in fresh boiling water to become edible and it wouldn’t readily be a good medicinal to be used either internally or externally. Cooking naturally not only releases the chemicals that cause a poisonous reaction but also the medicinal components that aid in curing ailments. This lends me to believe that a lot of the medicinal references may be to calendula and marigold was used more from a magical lens or as a pot herb and filler when cooked very well.

I genuinely enjoy checking in and conversing with my calendula plants particularly given the subtle and not so subtle ways they are impacted by incoming or changing weather. I find they are very much like smaller versions of the sunflower turning towards the sun or closing partially. I also really enjoy that I rarely come across either a calendula or marigold flower that is not home to some small creature. You will typically find them curled up inside the small petals and what a wonderful existence they’ve found for themselves. I almost feel guilty at times taking harvests and try to re-home them when I can to another sunny and comfortable location. 

Henry Herbert La Thangue – Girl picking marsh marigold

Marsh marigold is very endemic to Ireland and the isles whereas Calendula was possibly traded by the Gauls near France and Spain or other Indo Europeans and shipped to the isles where it became naturalized very early on. While we now know regular marigold varieties or calendula and the marsh marigold are different species and in completely different plant families, they have a similar appearance and flower color and therefore were somewhat grouped together. This is apparent due to shared belief across the landscape regarding various species as well as shared medicinal references. In Ireland, it was used to treat bruises, sprains, cuts,1 wounds,2 measles,3 fevers, convulsions,4 heart complaints,5 sore eyes,6 smallpox, jaundice as well as provoke menstruation.7 There is scant mention of marigold in Scottish records although we know it was likely used. In England, it was used to treat measles and for fever and to reduce swellings in Wales.8

Fascinatingly, the marigold and likely calendula as already mentioned, was used to predict the weather because its petals tend to close when rain is coming.9 In general, there was a unanimous association across Europe to marigold varieties, and more so marsh marigold having an association with love, of May, particularly May eve. and Bealtaine as well as being a symbol of protection.10 It was commonly given to women by their suitors or worn in flower garlands that went around the head or neck.11 Dioscorides wrote about marigold being taken ‘…out of the earth before the rising of the sun. They are astringent to the body and are hung around the neck, being good for averting women witches and all enchantments.’ The marsh marigold in Ireland was called the ‘shrub of Bealtaine’ and those herbs gathered on May eve. were thought to contain sacred healing power and were hung around the homestead, above the doors or on cattle themselves to protect them from fairies or witches.12 One Irish May eve. tradition was to light a bonfire with a big ash log in the middle. The girls would all have a may bush and tie marigold flowers to them as they sat around the fire telling stories. The songs that were sung on May eve. were not sung at any other day or time of year. When the night was over, they would pick the marigold off the May bush and throw them into the fire and afterwards, every person would take a bit of ash from the dying fire and keep it in their pocket.13 

Calendula

Another tradition was to carry ‘circles of the sun’ in processions representing the growing power of nature and new growth of the spring season which were covered in marsh marigold and rowan.14 Additionally, there was a related tradition in Scotland where a hoop that was about four inches in diameter was made of milkwort, butterwort, dandelion and marigold that was then bound with a triple cord and placed under milk-vessels to prevent them from being stolen by witches.15 In Irish mythology, there was an obscure figure by the name of Fiongalla known as the ‘fair-cheeked one’. A bandruí named Amerach, who was said to not age, made Fiongalla vow never to sleep with any man until she brought her specific magical yew berries, holly boughs and marigolds.16 There is also a wonderful and likely depiction of marigolds just alongside a sheela na gig placed proudly on the main entrance to Ballinderry Castle in Galway Ireland. Marigold was mentioned in the pseudo Ossianic legends when it was said…“…he addressed the powerful beings before him in some perplexity… “I am ignorant of your means of helping me. I only know that I require you to be on the shore by sunset of the coming day with the holly bough, the marigold, and the red berries of the yew from the ring of power in the obscure land in the great sea!”

In addition to being used medicinally, the flowers of calendula were commonly used as a food garnish, particularly for broths, soups and salads.17 It was also used as a dye for cheese or for coloring hair a blonde shade.18  Marsh marigold is in the Ranunculaceae family and native to Europe, Asia and North America. Calendula is in the Asteraceae family and native to western and southern Europe as well as the Mediterranean but has become quite a well known and naturalized garden herb around the world. Marsh marigolds have circular smooth leaves while calendula are also smooth but elongated. Both flowers have orange to yellow flowers that typically bloom from spring through mid summer and were definitely integrated with Bealtaine traditions but also may have been associated with the Summer Solstice. They’re perennials hardy in zones 2 through 11, grow up to 60 cm or 2 ft and do well in full sun and moist soil. Marigold or calendula energy is warm and dry. The leaves and flowers are edible and have a subtly bitter to sweet flavor. They’re most commonly used as an infusion, tincture, extract, decoction, ointment, balm or salve, oil and poultice.

Marsh marigold

******Calendula can be eaten raw while Marsh Marigold is poisonous or an irritant to use, even on the skin, unless cooked. Early spring greens and buds of Caltha palustris must be cooked in boiling water 2 to 3 times with fresh water, until tender to break down the poisonous component, protoanemonin. I would realistically only recommend working with calendula medicinally and working with marsh marigold, magically.******

Benefits

antibacterial, anticancer and antitumor, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antispasmodic, astringent, dental tonic, demulcent, digestive tonic, emmenagogue, immune tonic, liver tonic, lymphagogue, radiation preventative, skin tonic, vulnerary

Recipe 

Calendula Skin Balm

Ingredients: 2 oz. or 1/4 cup calendula petals, 8 oz. or 1 cup olive, carrot, or coconut oil, 2 tbsp. carnuba or bees wax, clean amber glass salve container to store your balm

Instructions: Put the oil in a pot and put on medium heat. After ten minutes, turn off the heat. Add the calendula petals and stir and crush well. Let it sit for 3 hours, then take out the mixture and strain it through a cheesecloth to remove the flowers. Place it back on the stove top on medium heat and add the carnuba wax or beeswax until both the oil and wax melt into one another smoothly. Pour the oil into your container and let cool. If you don’t like the consistency, heat it up again and add more oil or wax depending on if you want it more smooth or more firm. This can also be done using a calendula pre-infused oil of your choice that was done over a few weeks time. This balm promotes wound healing as well as youthful, clear and moisturized skin. 

Footnotes

  1. Irish Folk Duchas, School Collection – 847: 529
  2.  Wulff, Winifred, author unknown, On Wounds, Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, 1352. 
  3. Irish Folk Duchas, School Collection – 679: 390
  4. Irish Folk Duchas, School Collection – 776: 376
  5. Irish Folk Duchas, School Collection – 710: 049
  6. Irish Folk Duchas, School Collection – 816: 107
  7.  K’ Eogh, John, Botanologia Universalis Hibernica, or An Irish Herbal, Cork, 1735, edited by Michael Scott, 1986, pg. 99.
  8. Myddvai, Meddygon, Pughe, John and Williams, John, The Physicians of Myddvai, Wales, 1861.
  9. Irish Folk Duchas, School Collection – 847: 418
  10. Irish Folk Duchas, School Collection – 1096: 330
  11. Lipp, Frank, Herbalism, Brown Little, 1996, pg. 38.
  12. Irish Folk Duchas, School Collection – 883: 114
  13. Irish Folk Duchas, School Collection – 682: 253
  14. Wilde, Lady, Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland, London, 1890, pg. 102. 
  15. Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica Vol. 2, Scotland, 1900, pg. 300. 
  16. Monaghan, Patricia, Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, New York, Facts On File Inc., 2004, pg. 190. 
  17. Irish Folk Duchas, School Collection – 795: 192
  18. Scallan, Christine, Irish Herbal Cures, Gill & Macmillan, 1994, pg. 68.
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