The summer annuals are up and out. You've amended the tired soil with compost that's either self-made or store bought. You are ready, and so are your local garden centers. This week might have found you there, gravitating toward shades of orange as you choose plants to echo colors of Halloween, Thanksgiving and the falling leaves
And what fall flowering plant could be more representative of the season then the frost-resistant calendula? Plant it in orange, yellow or both. Calendula plants will reward throughout the winter and into early spring.
The more familiar name, pot marigold, is not of the marigold or Tagetes family. Calendula officinalis is an herb, having culinary, cosmetic and dyeing properties. It is also a wonderful cut flower. The Romans noticed that the pot marigold was usually in bloom on the first day, or calends, of every month. From this observation the Latin generic name Calendula came to refer to its long bloom period.
The history of pot marigold is filled with poetry and symbolism, most of which has been in appreciation of an unusual behavior characteristic that has fascinated both poets and prose writers. At dawn the blossom opens with the sun, creating the poetic image of the awakening of a "weeping" flower. Its golden-orange color brightens the day until sunset, when the early-to-bed pot marigold closes for the night.
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Pot marigold is versatile, having medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and dyeing properties.
The flower is used for making soups and stews; the petals are added to salads, cakes, rolls and rice; the latter use as a substitute for expensive saffron. Calendula flowers have been used for a multitude of medicinal purposes. During the Civil War and World War I, pot marigold flowers were used to help stop bleeding. Calendula serves still as a dressing for small wounds. I keep a jar composed of melted Vaseline and calendula petals in the medicine cabinet; it is a first-rate soothing salve for red ant bites. This infusion can be used on cuts and bruises and is gentle enough to be used on babies or others with sensitive skin. People with light-colored hair can use calendula-based shampoos and rinses to bring out highlights.
And the other orange-yellow fall flower is too an herb -- a Southern one -- Tagetes lucida, better known as Mexican mint marigold. It's vibrant in flower and unbeatable in the kitchen, where its sweet, anise-like fragrance is reminiscent of French tarragon. Fresh leaves are wonderful in any recipe that calls for tarragon, including chicken, seafood and veal dishes. They are sweet enough to be used in cool summer drinks and desserts. Try them in fruit salad and white wine vinegar for salad dressings. Small wonder this versatile herb that thrives on Southern summers and flowers in the fall has been dubbed "Southern tarragon."
Not orange- nor yellow-flowering, but oh, so very "fall and winter holidays" in the kitchen is the versatile herb Salvia officinalis, or garden sage. Common sage has a long and distinguished career as a medicinal herb. The word sage comes from the Latin "salvere," which means to be saved -- a reference to its curative powers.
In the Middle Ages it was used almost as we do aspirin, to soothe the nerves, cure toothache, improve digestion, cure poisoning or ease itching. Modern herbalists use sage leaves fresh as a tea to treat head colds and sore throats, nervous headaches and bad digestion.
Well-known herbalist and author Madeline Hill called the cultivation of sage a chancy proposition, with its gray, rough-textured leaves giving a clue. Like so many plants so endowed, sage dislikes high humidity combined with high temperatures. That's why I grow sage in a pot, moving it to a spot in the garden that receives only morning sun. My 3-year-old plant was doing fine until the rains came and it drowned. I've since bought another and set it in full sun where I anticipate it will live all winter.
Both sage and mint marigold are perennial in the Lowcountry; pot marigold is a winter annual.