Many flowers have names associated with the Virgin Mary – Lady’s Mantle and Lady’s Smock to name two. It would seem reasonable to assume that Marigold, old name Marygold, is one of these. The plant certainly came to be associated with the Virgin Mary but the origin of the name is actually a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon name Meargealla.
From the Middle Ages there was a form of herbalism that we now refer to as astrological-herbalism. In Macer’s Herbal (1525) it is written that Marigold “must be taken [picked] only when the moon is in the Sign of the Virgin” i.e. Vergo. The constellation Vergo was often associated with the Virgin Mary, so did this statement derive from the traditional connection between this flower and the Virgin Mary? There is certainly a subtle allusion to the Virgin Mary in the very next sentence: “ And the gatherer, who must be out of deadly sin, must say three Pater Nosters and three Aves”. The ‘Ave’ begins with the words ‘Ave Maria’ or ‘Hail Mary’.
The herbalist Nicholas Culpeper continued the tradition of astrological herbalism in his herbal of 1653. He wrote that Marigold is an “herb of the Sun, and under Leo. They strengthen the heart exceedingly”. These two sentences may seem unconnected but together they made perfect sense to an astrological herbalist, who held that every part of the body was influenced or ‘governed’ by a planet (which could be the Sun or Moon) and a constellation of the Zodiac. Culpeper believed that the heart was governed by the Sun and Leo. Therefore if someone needed a medicine to strengthen a weak heart the best ingredients were those which were also governed by Leo and the Sun, Marigold being one. The way that the Marigold flower is described in earlier periods is an example of the surprising absence of a word from the vocabulary of the day. The word ‘orange’ was only introduced when the fruit was first brought to England in the 16th century. So in the 1500s one description of the flower was not orange, the word most people would use today. Instead John Gerard in his herbal of 1597 writes of the African marigold “but to the describe the colour in words, it is not possible, but this way, lay upon paper with a pencill a yellow colour called Masticot, which being dry, lay the same over with a little Saffron steeped in water or wine.”
The species of Marigold that has most medicinal properties is Calendula Officinalis. Many plants have Officinalis as the second part of their botanical name and this always indicates that they have been used in medicine for a long period of time. ‘Calendula’ derives from belief that they bloomed on the calends of each month. (The calends were the first day of the month in the Ancient Roman calender). Calendula cream is sold in pharmacies today as a soothing skin cream and contains extract of Marigold. In early 20th century rural England, and almost certainly before that, a tincture made from Marigold was used to treat sores on the teats of a cow’s udders.
Another traditional use for Marigold is to treat the pain and swelling caused by a wasp or bee sting. It is something that we could try today if stung in a garden. However, Mrs Grieve wrote in her herbal of 1931 that this was something that “has been asserted” so the efficacy of this remedy is not guaranteed!
Grieve, Margaret. 1971. A Modern Herbal. Edited by Hilda Legel. Dover Publications Inc.
Woodward, Marcus, ed. 1994. Gerard’s Herbal: The History of Plans. Senete, London.
To cite this post : Julie Wakefield, “Dried Marigold Flowers”, From the Herb Garret (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), August, 16th, 2016.
Julie Wakefield began specialising in herbalism at the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. As a former staff member at the Old Operating Theatre she delivered talks on past uses of plants both in the Herb Garret and Southwark Cathedral’s herb garden. She is an active member of the Historic Herbalism Research Network and a university guest lecturer.