According to the inestimable Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, a poet in the 16th century wrote the following riddle:
What flower is that which bears the Virgin’s name,
The richest metal joined to the same?
John Gay was speaking about Calendula, though at the time it was called the “pot marigold” due to its ubiquity in cooking. The ancient Romans spoke of it and its popularity continued through centuries of history for all its flavorful, colorful, and medicinal properties. It dries beautifully for arrangements, creates an attractive yellow dye for fabric, and can be seeded for a lovely display of bright, long-lasting flowers in the garden.
But that wasn’t why I was after it today. I had randomly seeded some Calendula in the side bed right before winter, just to see what they would do, and have been drying flower after flower ever since in the McGuffin. This plant is prolific. I wanted the petals for two reasons: first, they are the only flower petal I know of that maintains its color in cold process soap, and second, they are renowned for making an exceptional skin-healing and smoothing salve. My friend Natty, the Chickenkeeper Alchemist, had grown some in her increasingly expansive garden and gave some to me. She noted as an aside that in Russia, Calendula skin salves were well known.
The Russians aren’t no fools. Herbalist manuals consistently back up the reports of Calendula’s effects on inflamed, irritated, bruised and scraped skin, minor wounds, and even sprains. Tomes like Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, (D. Hoffman, Healing Arts Press 2003) , Making Plant Medicine, (R. Cech 2000) and the Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine (A. Chevallier, Dorling Kindersley 2000) as well as many others all confirm that this little flower can do some remarkable work in lotions, salves, and balms. So with Natty’s words in mind, I decided to make a calendula oil and beeswax salve.
The first thing to do was to get the ingredients and equipment together. The bright orange petals in the leftmost jar had been steeping at 105 degrees Fahrenheit for sixteen hours in eight ounces of pure olive oil — after all, the most useful feature of the McGuffin is to maintain a steady temperature over many hours. (God I love that thing.) One ounce of beeswax, which came from the beekeeper a few blocks down the street, had been laboriously grated off the solid unrefined block. (Memo to me: Next time get the pastilles if you want to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome as well as peelers bent into bizarre modern art pieces.) I had the lavender and rosemary essential oils that I’d use gently to fragrance the salve set to go, and the Chinoise strainer and cheesecloth that I’d use to clarify the Calendula oil. Now all that was left was to suit up and get going.
I’m pretty compulsive about manufacturing practices, even though this is an “anhydrous” (meaning no water) formula using completely dried herbs, so the possibility of ickies growing in it should not be an issue. But I still wash up and sanitize all dishes, implements and containers, wipe down all surfaces with bleach solution, tie my hair back, wear gloves and a mask in case of sneezles, and of course wear the Herbwitch Hat. It’s actually a traditional Ghanaian hat I found at, of all places, a Renaissance Faire. I immediately fell in love with it. Call it cultural appropriation if you will, but I feel pretty cool and competent with the Hat when I’m dealing with herbal preparations because it is simply so spectacular. I hope I’m forgiven.
Once the oil is strained of the petals, first through the Chinoise (how does anyone live without this thing?) and then through several layers of cheesecloth, it’s put in a bowl atop a saucepan of water.
The beeswax gratings are added, and the mixture is very, very slowly heated, monitored and stirred frequently. Getting it too hot will lose a lot of qualities of both the Calendula and the beeswax (in particular the fragrance), so patience is a must. The beeswax will eventually melt. Eventually. Seriously, eventually, although it does feel like geologic time now and then.
Once the beeswax is melted, the clock starts ticking a bit. 10 drops of essential oils — six Hungarian lavender, four rosemary in my formula — get mixed in and then it’s poured into the prepared containers to cool and solidify. It will solidify fast so that’s why you need to stay focused. Up to 40 drops of essential oils can be used, but I wanted a very gentle formula, so I stuck with ten drops of oils that have their own known skin reparative properties.
The salve is best kept in a cool place so it won’t melt and resolidify frequently, and with proper care should last for months. As with all balms, salves, and lotions, it’s best to use something other than your fingers to get it out of the container. But all minor cautions aside, it’s a wonderful-smelling, comforting salve that’ll come in handy the next time the wall gets spiteful with your knuckles when you’re carrying up the laundry.