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Pretty enough to eat: How to grow and use calendula

How to grow and use Calendula flowers. Little eco footprints

I was thrilled to spot the first calendula flower in my garden a few weeks ago. I'm now picking these delightful bright flowers almost daily. Calendula officinalis flowers are edible and medicinal and can be used in a myriad of ways.

Right now (early spring) is the perfect time to sow calendula seeds.

Scatter seeds over bare ground and cover with a thin layer of soil. Little Eco tossed our calendula seeds along the border of a garden bed. Dozens of seedlings emerged despite her haphazard approach.

If you sow seeds now, you will be harvesting flowers in about two months.

This hardy herb will grow almost anywhere, but will do best if planted in a sunny location with fertile well-drained soil. It also grows well in pots.

Calendula is a great companion plant for tomatoes, so sow it near your tomato plants to deter pests.

Regular picking encourages more flowers, so I'm picking flowers almost daily as soon as they fully open.

I've been sprinkling fresh calendula petals into salads and adding them to muffins.

Banana calendula muffins. Calendula flowers are edible and add a pretty touch to muffins. Little eco footprints

A small handful of bright orange petals turns a batch of banana muffins into something extra special. The petals add a mild bitter flavour, a lot of colour, and apparently aid digestion.

Calendula petals can also be used as a frugal substitute for saffron.

Calendula has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties and is a potent skin healer.

A simple way to enjoy these soothing properties is to make a "sun tea". To make calendula sun tea, fill a jar with fresh flowers and cover with water. Seal the jar and place in the sun to infuse for at least five hours, then strain.

Calendula sun tea can be used as a gargle for a sore throat, as a mouth rinse for inflamed gums or ulcers, as a hair rinse for itchy scalps, or as a foot bath for athlete's foot. You can also make a soothing compress for inflamed skin conditions such as scratches, grazes or nappy rash by soaking clean rags in the tea.

Calendula flowers can be dried so this beneficial herb can be enjoyed all year round.

I'm drying calendula flowers on an old fly screen supported between two chairs. You can also dry flowers on a tea towel or newspaper or in a dehydrator. Turn flowers occasionally as they dry. The flowers must be completely dry before being stored, otherwise they will go mouldy. Sufficiently dry flowers will feel fragile and crispy. Dry flowers can be stored in a sealed glass jar in a dark cupboard.

There's an almost endless number of ways to use dried calendula flowers. They can be used to make calendula tea; added to a bath for a soothing soak; or used to make lotions, salves and balms. I'm especially keen to try making calendula lip balm.

Once established, calendula will self-seed, and return year after year. 

Towards the middle of autumn, I'll stop picking my calendula flowers and let them go to seed. I like the idea of this useful flower becoming a weed in my garden.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 29th September 2014.