Taste of Life: The many uses of calendula - Hindustan Times

Taste of Life: The many uses of calendula

ByChinmay Damle
Oct 26, 2023 06:40 AM IST

A few months earlier, the “Bombay Chronicle” had reported that certain European restaurants serving Italian dishes were using marigold or calendula petals instead of saffron since the import of saffron from Spain had been hampered owing to the Second World War

Marigold is a flower of “Dussehra”. Its fiery yellow, orange, and red hues are often associated with joy, optimism, hope, and abundance. It also symbolises grief and mourning. Many cultures associate marigold flowers with resurrection and honouring the dead.

Calendula, or pot marigold, was planted in gardens and farms all over India. (Wikipedia)
Calendula, or pot marigold, was planted in gardens and farms all over India. (Wikipedia)

On September 12, 1943, the evening edition of the Marathi newspaper “Jnanaprakash” published a small note, purportedly written by its editor. It mentioned that during the last few months several citizens of Pune, especially those believing in homeopathy, had resorted to eating marigold petals. Some local shops had been selling ghee added with marigold petals. A new product, “marigold tea” was introduced in the market. The note asked local doctors whether consuming marigold petals over a long period was detrimental to health.

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A few months earlier, the “Bombay Chronicle” had reported that certain European restaurants serving Italian dishes were using marigold or calendula petals instead of saffron since the import of saffron from Spain had been hampered owing to the Second World War. It mentioned that calendula petals were also being added to cakes and wondered whether this practice was safe.

There is some confusion where marigold is concerned, though. Depending on its geographical origins, a plant may have several common names and those can be confusing. Many plants can have the same name, whether they look alike or not.

In India, marigold is a common name that usually refers to two different genera of blooming plants from the daisy family. Marigolds include species of plants from both the genus Calendula and the genus Tagetes. However, flowers belonging to the genus Calendula, like Calendula officinalis, are not actually a marigold. Calendula and marigolds are two very different plants. The confusion arises because calendula is often known as pot marigold, common marigold, or Scotch marigold, though it isn’t a true marigold at all. Tagetes patula is known as the French marigold. Tagetes erecta is African marigold.

Both pot marigolds and French marigolds were abundant in India. Several gardening books published in nineteenth-century Britain referred to Calendula officinalis as “marigold”, while French marigold cultivars were called “Tagetes”. Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) is a native to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, while the French marigold (Tagetes patula), is an American native. Calendula is edible and often appears on lists of attractive edible flowers. Several French marigold cultivars are not edible. Depending on the cultivars involved, both pot marigold and French marigold can look pretty similar.

Tagetes, or the French marigold, gets its name from Tages, a prophet who is recognised for founding the ancient Etruscan religion. French marigolds were very popular annuals in English gardens across India. The genus name Calendula is from “calends”, referring to the fact that in warmer climates, calendula could be in bloom every month of the year; “officinalis” indicates it was stored in warehouses or monasteries and sold in shops.

Calendula, or pot marigold, was planted in gardens and farms all over India. It was a beautiful ornamental plant that was easy to grow annually and thrived in sunny locations in the country. It was tolerant of neglect and could withstand punishing summers in the country. It was easy to grow from seeds.

Its petals, fresh or dried, gave a delicate, aromatic, salty bitterness and a strong colour to dishes. The petals added colour and texture rather than a strong flavour to drinks and foods. Pot marigold was sometimes known as poor man’s saffron. Valued for its yellow-orange blossoms, it was often used as a saffron substitute. Saffron brought to Pune from Spain and Kashmir was frequently contaminated with calendula florets.

British women living in India often used pot marigolds in their kitchens. The petals of pot marigolds were used as a colouring agent in foods and also in soups and stews. They were used in puddings, dumplings, and even wine. Fresh or dried flower petals could be used as a yellow-orange colouring for white sauces, or a colourful garnish for butter, salads, and desserts. Calendula petals were whisked with eggs and scrambled. The petals were ground with soaked cashews and added to cream cheese or butter. This “calendula cream cheese” or “calendula butter” was used to make sandwiches. The agriculture department often advised farmers from Pune to feed calendula to their hens to deepen the colour of the yolks in their eggs.

Pot marigold leaves and petals were known for their medicinal usage. The leaves were suggested to be added to leafy salads. Eaten as a salad, they were considered useful in treating the scrofula of children. A decoction of the calendula flowers was much in use in rural England as a posset drink in measles and smallpox, a widely administered remedy and one of the few which everybody seemed to know. This household remedy was practised in Anglo-Indian households too.

Even though the medicinal properties of calendula were known since ancient times, by the 1800s, doctors had realized that the plant, used as a poultice, could stop bleeding. During the American Civil War, most doctors carried dried calendula petals in their medical bags to stop bleeding and to promote the healing of wounds.

Several doctors had used calendula in the First World War. In June 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II, Dr Ethelbert Petri Hoyle, a brilliant physician and homoeopath, shared his own experience in WWI in a paper published in the journal “Homeopathic Recorder”. During the First World War, Hoyle had extensively used calendula solutions to clean wounds.

In the 1940s, Dattopant V Tamhankar, the nationalist author, was living in Britain. He worked as a correspondent for the Marathi newspapers “Kesari” and “Sahyadri”, and often contributed to some other English newspapers. During the Second World War, he regularly reported the events for Marathi and English newspapers. Several of his reports centred on the effects of the war on common people. The sudden frenzy around “marigold flowers” in Mumbai and Pune could be attributed to one of the articles Tamhankar wrote in May 1943 in one of the English dailies published in Mumbai.

Tamhankar, in the article, mentioned that after an appeal by the British government, common people had taken up the cultivation of potatoes in 1940. Several gardens, parks, and empty spaces were converted to potato farms. After the successful cultivation of potatoes on a large scale, some British doctors requested the government to undertake the cultivation of pot marigolds. The flower could be used to treat wounded soldiers and the leaves could be used as food, they said. But, while writing the report, Tamhankar omitted the word “pot”.

Tanmhankar’s article in English was condensed in “Kesari” the same month. Readers in Pune and Mumbai might have taken a fancy to marigold flowers after reading the same.

However, officers from the agricultural department were alarmed. They knew that both Calendula officinalis and Tagetes patula were commonly called “marigold” in English and “jhendu” in Marathi. Though calendula or pot marigold was edible, several varieties of the French marigold were not. The officers were also not sure about the toxic effects of consuming the flowers over a longer period.

A note in “Jnanaprakash” on October 29, 1943, mentioned an appeal by the Agricultural Department. “Residents of Pune are requested not to consume “jhendu” (marigold) flowers daily; they can consult the faculty at the Agriculture College about the flowers they are eating”, it read.

The “marigold” frenzy died soon after, I hope.

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