from the Symphony of Herbs
Light. Heat. Intensity. Solar energy.
It’s summer time!
Some of us worship long days of bright sunlight. Others welcome a renewed feeling of summer lightness. Perhaps we avoid the heat, and go out of our way to seek shade? Summer, like each of the four seasons, arrives with its unique personality. Depending on our constitution, summer may increase our internal sense of harmony, or it may disturb our inner balance. However, there is an overall sense of motivation to be actively well in the longer sunshine hours, and warm evenings suffused with gentle, outdoor light, scents and shadows.
Many herbs are at their growth peak during summer providing us with an abundance of flowers and aerial parts to be harvested, and medicinally utilised. Herbs that I distinctly associate with summer are the herbal aromatics, many of which are Mediterranean natives and seem to transplant the very essence of sunshine and phytomedicine from that part of the world to our New Zealand shores.
Aromatics are herbs with a strong taste and aroma. Their aroma is created by volatile oils within the plant and can serve the herb in numerous ways; to attract pollinators, as part of the plant’s immune system, or to taste unpleasant, or surprising, to grazing animals, foraging humans and herbalists. Many plants contain these oils, but only those with strong aromas contain sufficient quantities to be treasured as true aromatics. The established “symphony of herbs" performer, Calendula officinalis, plays on the strength of her traditional aromatic quality; soothing any summer tension away as she does so. A number of our favourite and best known herbal infusions are made with aromatic herbs. Think peppermint, German chamomile, fennel, and lemon balm as examples. We are mindful that aromatics have cross over in their actions, but some will have a particular resonance with our body, such as thyme with lungs, fennel with our digestion and rosemary with our circulation. Many aromatics are warming and therefore useful for people who tend to feel the cold on a clouded summer’s day. However, others such as peppermint, rose and lemon balm are cooling and suitable for balancing people who are harbouring heat in excess.
What all the aromatics have in common is an ability to open up and shift our body’s energy. They help to avoid stagnation and disperse mucous that is lodged with resistance. They are adept at drying dampness, which occurs in our body even during summer, and moving the congestion, which dampness often causes. Consequently, they allow us to feel brighter and energised. People may comment that the heat of summer can make them feel sluggish and tired. Aromatics can help to create movement on various bodily levels. They can be used to move stubborn catarrh from summer allergies in our sinuses, and to dispel gas in our gut from overeating the bounty of summer produce. They may open our skin pores and release trapped summer heat in our body. Think of how thyme, or eucalyptus, feel in the lungs, how peppermint behaves in our gut, or how rosemary feels in our circulation; they all have a quality of movement in the summer sonata creating an energy like the sun herself. The volatile oils in aromatic plants escape easily into the atmosphere when in the presence of warmth or light. A summer’s breeze often carries aromatic signatures of herbs to us. This ability of the volatile oils to move upward and outward reflects what we feel in the body when we take them internally. They move through us, like a sweeping, memorable sonata, and clear health giving pathways as they perform.
They have a similar effect for our mental or emotional health balance, opening and uplifting us when we feel low and heavy. There is no doubt that a moderate amount of sunshine encourages feelings of joy, openness and relaxation, and the aromatic herbs can fill the gap when our summer sun is lost to summer rain. In fact, we need to remember many are effective nervines (working to relax us), such as lemon balm, lime blossom, chamomile, or lavender. Infusions that are particularly rejuvenating when the summer weather misbehaves include lemon verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, rose and cardamom as these have a gentle, mood enhancing and cheering quality.
Aromatics tend to have a positive effect on the digestion. Those that are warming will stoke our digestive fires and improve metabolism after summer time feasts. The more cooling often help with flatulence, calm intestinal spasms and digestive bloating. Notably beneficial, these herbs give their aromatic constituents up easily to a variety of different mediums, and therefore make excellent infused oils, honeys, vinegars, teas and tinctures. It is helpful to create phytomedicinal products in the kitchen to have on hand and use in preventative health care. One can also add generous amounts of fresh oregano, sage, thyme, marjoram, basil or rosemary to food nurturing the medicinal aromatic effect. A bathroom routine can be aromatically transformed if we entertain the idea of infusing the aromatics in oil suitable for external body massage use. Massaging rosemary infused oil after a summer’s morning shower may clear the mind for an active day ahead.
Summer would be sadly incomplete if we did not spend time with the bright “herb of the sun”. She is golden, giving and glorious. Calendula officinalis!
She dutifully plays her summer sonata for medical herbalists offering her aromatic plant acids and volatile oil in the “symphony of herbs”. What a melody of solar chords and medicinal energy for us. The opening and closing of calendula flowers is synchronised with the rising and setting of the summer sun. In this light, the blooms are imbued with solar healing energies, and their therapeutic actions are consequently enhanced by the healing powers of the sun. Consequently, perhaps we can associate calendula with our internalised “light body”. Calendula taken internally may integrate aeration and lightness into our living tissues, permeating metabolic processes, and establishing internal summer harmony.
In summer, when the weather may challenge our bodies’ largest organ, the skin, we can be thankful that calendula is readily available to us and grows locally. To harvest this highly resinous flower, pick it at its peak on a warm summer day. You will know you have genuine plant medicine by the stickiness covering your hands. It shines as a herb for our integumentary system.
Calendula for Summer Skin
Calendula creams, oils, and body butters can be used to soothe the skin after sunburn. It helps to relieve inflammation and pain while promoting new tissue growth. In addition to supporting skin that has been over exposed to the sun, calendula also helps to heal tissues that have been burned by open barbeque fire, or by dry kitchen heat whilst preparing food. Fresh poultices and hydrosol washes are therapeutic approaches to provide calendula for this purpose.
Calendula can be used to decrease scar tissue, whether it is from burns, wounds or if there is a need to recover from a surgical incision this summer. An infused calendula oil combined with St. John’s Wort and rose hip seed oils promote healing and prevent formation of a contracting scar line.
Summer heat-dehydrated, itchy skin:
This is an opportunity to use calendula cream or body butter. Science has further validated this use by showing that calendula improves elasticity and skin hydration. Frequent use of calendula creams on our skin helps to keep it healthy, soft, and pliable.
The summer outdoors’ minor scratches or wounds:
A calendula salve or poultice stimulates proliferation and migration of fibroblasts. Additionally, it is mildly antimicrobial lessening risk of infection.
Grand summer arrivals:
Calendula is a resourceful herb for mothers in postpartum care. The flowers can be made into a strong tea for a sitz bath to heal the perineum, perhaps this could be enhanced by plantain and bearberry. The fresh flower poultice or salve can be used on tender nipples.
Baby summer “tops” and “botts”:
Calendula as a salve or cream helps to prevent and work with nappy rash, which can get uncomfortably excited in summer heat on tiny bottoms. It can also be used for cradle cap on precious heads.
Insect bite season:
The herb of the sun soothes away the bite and sting sensations from insects, bugs and beautiful bees.
Sporting our sunhats in New Zealand is wise, but often increasing heat and perspiration on peoples’ scalps can exacerbate, or flare dandruff. A calendula based topical oil for scalps is helpful in dandruff management.
Let the “herb of the sun” work with fungus:
Fungal growth (athlete's foot, ringworm, and candida) may be treated using both topical and internal calendula approaches.
The tincture applied neat to herpes cold sores encourages healing.
Internal Calendula Therapy
Varicose veins in summer:
Hot weather adds to the development of varicosities by simply expanding the blood vessels in the body. Calendula can be used both externally and internally to support blood vessel health and decrease varicosities, including haemorrhoids and varicose veins. Herbs such as yarrow and horse chestnut combine well with calendula.
As a vulnerary, the herb promotes the healing of complex wounds. In one study, patients with venous leg ulcers were divided into two groups. One group was treated with a calendula ointment twice daily for three weeks. The other group of people was treated with saline solution dressings. After three weeks, those being treated with the calendula ointment had a statistically significant acceleration of wound healing over those being treated with saline solution.
Calendula’s wound healing, antimicrobial, and inflammatory modulating effects will also work well for internal ulcers. However, it is effective to use the herb as an overnight infusion to be drunk the following day for these gastrointestinal “wounds.”
When summer brings chicken pox:
Calendula tincture, oil or cream can be applied to chicken pox sores to decrease the pain and itching. The herb is naturally effective in the scab stage of skin healing to lessen scarring.
Assisting people with “leaky” gut:
Sometimes referred to as intestinal permeability, a leaky gut is essentially “wounded” intestines. People who are working with gastrointestinal conditions such as this can benefit from understanding the medicinal quality of calendula. Grow your own golden “sun herb” to be active with healing of the gut lining. Calendula and plantain play a medicinal duet when infused for tea to work with the mucosal membranes of the intestinal tract.
Bitter but beautiful:
Although the ability to heal wounds is often the most popular way to use calendula, we need to remind ourselves that it offers liver support. A strong calendula infusion has a decidedly bitter taste, which indicates its affinity for supporting the liver and clearing organ stagnation. It is useful for delayed menstruation as well as painful menstrual cramping, both of which can be part of a liver stagnation pattern.
A calendula infusion, when drunk as a warm infusion, has a diaphoretic effect that can be used to support the fever process. We can pick up the beat from the “symphony of herbs” adding other diaphoretic players to the infusion, such as ginger and horseradish roots.
Cancer and Calendula
Calendula has been used in several in vitro studies for its effect on people’s cancer cells and has been shown to be effective against the cells of colon cancer, leukaemia, and melanoma. The results are promising, but human clinical trials are needed to confirm beneficial effects.
However, we do know that calendula stimulates the immune system. It contains polysaccharides similar to marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), which is also known for this effect. Calendula is used to stimulate lymphatic drainage and is used for stagnant lymph conditions, such as swollen glands, breast cysts, pelvic cysts, and intestinal bloating.
For people undergoing radiation this summer, calendula can protect skin after it has been exposed to the side effects of radiation therapy. One study showed that calendula worked better than the regularly prescribed pharmaceutical. In the study, 254 patients were given either trolamine (TEA) or calendula cream to apply after receiving radiation treatments. The researchers found that, “The occurrence of acute dermatitis of grade 2 or higher was significantly lower (41% v 63%; P<0.001) with the use of calendula than with trolamine. Moreover, patients receiving calendula had less frequent interruption of radiotherapy and significantly reduced radiation-induced pain.”
People can use calendula petals as prized nutrition when they grow it at home.
The “sun herb” is rich in flavonoids and antioxidants, including carotenoids, quercetin, and lutein. Medical herbalists know that calendula is more than the sum of its isolated constituents. For example, one study shows that, when compared to the isolated constituent of quercetin, calendula as a whole plant works better to decrease human gingival (gum) fibroblast mediated collagen degradation.
The strikingly golden petals can be enjoyed as a regular addition to many foods; this has been practised by people since time immemorial. According to herbalist James Duke, (2007) calendula flower petals were used as a “soup starter in the Middle Ages”, and as a saffron substitute since they impart a delightful yellow colour to food, such as rice and quinoa. He explains that the flowers are a notable source of healthful carotenoids, including lycopene and lutein.
Gently pull the petals from the fresh or dried flower heads. Add them to broths, soups, casseroles, sauces, eggs dishes, rice and other grains or seeds, vegetable and fruit salads, herb cheeses, muffins, whipped cream, dessert.
To prepare, generously fill a Mason jar or teapot with fresh calendula flowers and immerse with just-boiled water. Cover and let it steep for 4-8 hours. Strain and drink within a day. This is quite bitter and people may find they need to sip regularly throughout the day to manage the taste. The awareness that it is a therapeutic drink for their gastrointestinal health and lymphatic system will help to overcome any taste surprise.
Summer with its days of brilliant light reminds us that it is an ideal time to make solar oil-based infusions for topical use. The following provides a “symphony of herbs” list, which refers to herbal performers who play harmoniously in this traditional method of phytopharmacy. It is by no means an exhaustive list.
Herbs to solar infuse this summer:
Arnica flowers – Ideal after strenuous exertion and bruising.
Calendula flowers – The golden oil with a myriad of topical uses. (Please refer to “Calendula for Summer Skin” in this article.)
Cayenne – Topically used to relieve neuralgia, joint pain and muscle ache.
Chickweed – Useful for minor skin irritations.
Lemon balm – Cooling and calming to the skin.
Mullein flowers – A classic oil used as effective ear oil.
Peppermint – Effective for massaging into sore muscles.
Plantain – Helps ease minor skin irritations.
Rosemary – A stimulating oil for hair and scalp treatments, occasional sore muscles.
St. John’s Wort – Strikingly red-coloured and deeply penetrating for muscular soreness.
Yarrow – Used for minor skin irritations.
While preparing our solar infusions this summer, let us be reminded of the method.
1. Always use dry and sterilised jars with tight fitting lids.
2. Do not rinse your herb material in water. Dryness is a key factor.
3. Place your chosen herb material in a clean one litre jar. Quantity is eyeballed rather than measured! As a guide, fill the jar to a generous halfway. If using fresh herbs, wilt them first for 12 hours to remove the moisture (too much moisture will cause the oil to go rancid), tear gently into small pieces before adding to the jar. You can skip these extra steps if your herbs are dried. Good quality dried herbs do not make a solar infusion prone to spoilage.
4. Use a cold pressed olive oil since it offers some resistance to oxidation and rancidity. Other oil possibilities include almond, apricot kernel, jojoba and coconut.
5. Pour oil into the jar, making sure to cover herbs by at least 2cm of oil and leaving at least 1.5cm of space at the top of the jar so the herbs will have room to expand. If your herbs soak up all of the oil, then pour more on top to ensure that the herbs are well covered.
6. Stir well with a dry chopstick. Before lidding place a piece of natural wax baking paper over the top of the jar, and then lid the jar tightly. This will lessen any contamination from the inner lid surface into the infusion. Label.
7. Natural summer heat and light helps to infuse the oil by placing the jar on a suitable windowsill, but not in intense, direct daily sunlight, unless you are using a dark coloured jar. Covering the jar with a brown paper bag can lessen light intensity. Take the jar in your hands and roll back and forth to make sure that the herb is well saturated with oil. Repeat this gentle jar rolling once or more daily. This helps to release the herbal properties and keeps everything well covered.
8. After 4-6 weeks, strain into a jug through fine muslin. Gently squeeze the oil out of the herb material releasing those very last precious drops.
9. Pour into glass bottles, label and store in a cool, dark place. The oil should keep for at least a year. A few drops of natural Vitamin E oil may also be added to prolong the shelf life. Use your sense of smell as a rancidity monitor and discard if detected. When there is a vulnerable shelf life there is good reason to enjoy the benefits of solar infusions with enthusiasm, and if you have an over supply of an infusion, gift it to others to orchestrate their holistic health balance.
Create a special summer blend:
Rebalance Solar Infusion Oil
Infuse a mixture of organic hops, chamomile flowers, rose petals, and lavender flowers in spray-free olive or jojoba oil. This fragrant oil blend can be used after a summer’s night bathtub or shower to help encourage natural relaxation, and sleep. It could be applied gently to temples before sleep, or you may enjoy using it for massage after a long day in sunshine.
Light. Heat. Intensity. Solar energy.
As a Medical Herbalist in this energetic season, I enjoy interacting closely with phytomedicinal plants as they play and flourish in their summer sonata from the “symphony of herbs”. I treasure time with the aromatics, harvest the herb of the sun, infuse with solar energy, and in the light of summer “fine tune” which herbs I select to care for people in my practice.
1. Fisher C., Painter G., (2009) Materia Medica
2. Gladstar R., (2008) Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health
3. Dinda, et al. (2015) " PI3K-Mediated Proliferation of Fibroblasts by Calendula Officinalis Tincture: Implication in Wound Healing." Phytotherapy research: PTR 29
4. Pommier, Gomez et al. (2004) "Phase III Randomized Trial of Calendula Officinalis Compared with Trolamine for the Prevention of Acute Dermatitis During Irradiation for Breast Cancer." Journal of Clinical Oncology No. 22
5. Duran, Matic et al. (2005) "Results of the Clinical Examination of an Ointment with Marigold (Calendula Officinalis) Extract in the Treatment of Venous Leg Ulcers." International journal of tissue reactions 27, No. 3
6. Saini, Pragtipal, et al. (2012) "Effects of Calendula Officinalis on Human Gingival Fibroblasts." Homeopathy 101, No. 2
7. Fasano, Alessio, et al. (2005) "Mechanisms of Disease: The Role of Intestinal Barrier Function in the Pathogenesis of Gastrointestinal Autoimmune Diseases." Nature Clinical Practice Gastroenterology & Hepatology 2, No. 9
8. Ukiya, Motohiko, et al. (2006) "Anti-Inflammatory, Anti-Tumour-Promoting, and Cytotoxic Activities of Constituents of Marigold (Calendula Officinalis) Flowers." J Nat Prod 69, No. 12