It’s a common point of confusion for many people – What’s the difference between calendula and marigolds? They’re basically the same thing, right? Can’t I just substitute one for the other?
Calendula and marigolds are two very different plants, and trying to substitute one for the other isn’t advised. I personally blame all the confusion on whoever it was that first thought a good alternate name for calendula would be ‘pot marigold’!
At A Glance
Here’s a quick and handy chart, for the people who just want the conclusion and not to have to read through all this nonsense:
Now, let’s expand!
First difference: Completely different scientific names!
There are quite a few kinds of calendula flowers! Calendula is actually a genus of plants inside the plant family Asteraceae, meaning all the plants that count as calendula have it in their scientific name.
Calendula officinalis is that widely-cultivated bright bloom that’s so often coveted, both historically and in the present, for its medicinal properties. If you’re following a salve recipe or something else that calls for calendula, you should use Calendula officinalis.
Scientific name is NOT the variety name- when looking for calendula for your projects or garden, check tags, labels, and packets for both. Resina Calendula, Orange King Calendula, and Snow Princess Calendula are all very different looking blooms, but all of them are still Calendula officinalis, and can be used in the same way.
Other plants also bear Calendula in the first part of their name, but they aren’t so widely known, and are not used in the same way as Calendula officinalis. They appear to mostly be wildflowers, and not commonly cultivated ones at that.
Marigolds, on the other hand, are all under the genus Tagetes. African (or Aztec) marigolds are Tagetes erecta. French marigolds are Tagetes patula, while Mexican marigolds are called Tagetes lucida. There are also Signet marigolds, or Tagetes tenuifolia.
The most commonly grown marigolds are Tagetes patula and Tagetes erecta (French and African marigolds). Both have a good selection of varieties to choose from, bred over the years.
Calendula flowers may range in petal color and layering, but all Calendula officinalis should have the same leaf, body, stem, and seed set-up.
Calendula plants in general tend to be sticky to the touch- that’s the resin inside the plant, and when it comes to herbalists, this is highly desired. In fact, the stickier it is, the better, when it comes to making your salves and infused oils and other such things. Varieties such as Resina Calendula have been specifically bred for higher resin levels!
When the long, rounded leaves are stroked, one’s fingers generally tend to catch on the sticky, somewhat hairy texture. Stems are sticky too! The plant forms into a small shrub as long as one keeps up with the regular harvesting of flowers.
Calendula seeds are curved like a crescent, brown in color, and have little ridges or teeth all along their backs.
Long, thin leaves are toothed on the edges, and stems are smooth to the touch. In fact, the whole plant feels smooth.
Marigolds can be short and compact or grow up to over two feet tall, depending on variety. Petals are usually densely packed.
Marigold seedheads are packed full of straight black seeds, tipped with white.
Calendula flowers are harvested for use in medicinal products, as a dye, and for their edible petals.
The flowers are often used via infused oils in salves, lip balms, soaps, and other related body-care products. The petals are sprinkled on salads as an edible way to add color. (Avoid eating the petals or drinking calendula tea if pregnant.)
The bright flowers also yield beautiful natural dyes when boiled and used on fabrics and yarns!
Many pollinators seem to enjoy calendula, bees and butterflies alike, while being left largely alone by most pests (at least around these parts). Some people recommend planting it among tomatoes, claiming it deters tomato hornworms.
Calendula can be constantly harvested, as it responds to having its flowers plucked by sending out even more flowers. In fact, one should be careful not to go too long without picking, or you might go out to look for blooms but only find seedheads!
Marigold’s most primary use is to deter harmful nematodes in the garden, and for looks. It’s also said to deter other pests, but it seems no one can really agree on just which ones they turn away. Snails are said to dislike them, as well.
Some gardeners make a natural insect-repelling spray out of marigold flowers.
Interestingly enough, I’ve personally found that when I grow Kilimanjaro White Marigolds (Tagetes erecta), the pollinators go wild for them. Bees and butterflies flock to the flowers, but not a single pest takes a bite.
Marigolds are also used for natural dying, and can be used fresh or dried in this process.
Marigolds are not normally ingested. Marigolds aren’t usually used in body care products either, as some feel they can irritate the skin.
Marigolds (Tagetes spp) don’t have herbal properties and shouldn’t be used to replace Calendula (Calendula officinalis) in herbal remedies.
(Note an exception: Tagetes lucida, or Mexican Tarragon, is distinctly different from other marigolds in uses and properties. More on this in a future article. )
Calendula and marigolds are not the same plant and should not be substituted for one another.
One calendula may easily take the place of another in the same genus, and one Tagetes marigold for another, but Tagetes marigolds and calendula simply don’t have enough in common to be able to take the other’s place.