Calendula vs Marigold: The Hidden Differences Revealed

Imagine a vibrant garden bathed in hues of orange and yellow, where two stunning flowers vie for your attention. They may seem identical at first glance, their shared palette of warm colors creates a harmonious visual symphony. Yet, beneath this shared facade of beauty lies a world of difference. 

Welcome to the intriguing universe of calendula vs marigold, two botanical wonders often mistaken for each other due to their shared moniker of ”marigold”.

This confusion, however, is more than just a matter of mistaken identity. It’s a botanical puzzle with implications reaching far beyond the garden into medicine and culinary arts. Calendula, often known as pot marigold, is a revered medicinal herb with many healing properties. On the other hand, the true marigold, while visually similar, does not share these medicinal attributes.

We’ll help demystify these two floral marvels and explain their unique characteristics, from their distinctive flowers and leaves to their growth structure and seeds. We will also explore their medicinal and culinary uses and their respective roles in the garden ecosystem.

Quick Glance: Calendula vs Marigold

Calendula and Marigold, both vibrant garden additions, differ significantly. Marigolds, from the Tagetes genus, have compact petals and thin leaves. In contrast, calendula, also known as pot marigold, boasts longer petals and broader leaves, closely resembling daisies. Notably, calendula also offers medicinal benefits, unlike Marigolds.

Differences Between Marigold vs Calendula

Calendula officinalis flowers
Calendula officinalis

Classification

Both calendula and marigold belong to the Asteraceae, or daisy family. While they share this botanical family, that’s where the relational similarities end, as they are in two separate genera. 

Calendula belongs to the Calendula genus, and the species grown and used in Western herbalism is Calendula officinalis. While there are many varieties of calendula plants, they are all cultivars of Calendula officinalis. 

Calendula is native to southern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean area. It is cultivated worldwide as an ornamental medicinal herb, and due to its ability to self-sow, it has naturalized in parts of North America and Europe. 

Marigold belongs to the Tagetes genus, and unlike calendula, many different species are grown as ornamentals. Common ornamental marigold species include:

  • Tagetes erecta (African marigolds; mexican marigolds; Aztec marigold) 
  • Tagetes patula (French marigolds)
  • Tagetes tenuifolia (signet marigolds; wild mexican marigolds)

The genus Tagetes is native to subtropical and tropical America, unlike the Calendula genus, which is native to Europe and Northern Africa. 

Tagetes erecta, though commonly called African marigold, is native to Mexico and Central America. French marigolds (T. patula) are also native to Mexico and Guatemala despite their misleading common name. 

Differences in Leaves

The differences between calendula and marigold plants become evident once you observe their growth structures. Let’s start with the leaves. 

Calendula has simple, alternate leaves that are long and oval-shaped (botanically: oblanceolate – wider in the top half of the leaf). The margin (leaf edge) is smooth without any ridges or teeth.

The leaf blade is somewhat sticky, resinous, and rough to the touch, with hairs on both sides of the leaf. The leaf and stem are a bright, light green color. 

Marigold leaves are strikingly dissimilar to calendula; they grow in a compact structure and are divided, with a feathery, fern-like appearance. The margins are serrated (toothed), and the leaf is smooth to the touch. 

Marigold leaves and stems are dark green. 

Calendula Flower vs Marigold

Marigold Tagetes flower
Marigold Tagetes flower

Calendula and marigold flowers share a superficial resemblance, as they are both bright and sunny flowers growing in various shades of orange and yellow. 

As a member of the Asteraceae family, calendula bears the characteristic aster family composite flowers, with a radius of disc florets in the center surrounded by several ray florets. 

Depending on the cultivar, the flower may have multiple layers of overlapping ray florets. The color of calendula flowers also depends on the variety, ranging from deep orange to yellow to lighter orange with a brown center. 

One of the most distinguishing aspects of calendula flowers is their bright green sticky base, or involucre, botanically speaking.

Marigold flowers lack the center radius of disc florets and bear a single set of petals or can have double, crested, or pompon-like flower heads. 

The flower shape, color, and structure depend on the species and cultivar. African marigolds have a large, ruffled inflorescence, while French marigolds are smaller, with multiple layers of bicolored petals. 

Seeds

Again, the seeds of calendula and marigold are distinctly different. Calendula seeds are large, brown, and curved with ridged backs. To me, they have a pre-historic look to them. 

Marigold seeds, on the other hand, are straight black seeds with white tips resembling porcupine quills.

Overall Plant Growth Structure

No matter the variety, calendula grows to about 2 feet tall with branching flowering stems. The leaves are more prominent toward the base and smaller toward the flowers. 

The entire plant is sticky and resinous. 

The growth structure varies widely with Marigolds, as some upright varieties can grow to 4ft tall (African marigolds), while other varieties are more low-growing, with smaller flowers. 

Marigolds, overall, have a more bushy appearance due to their compact base of leaves, whereas calendula have a more upright, branching appearance. 

Medicinal, Culinary, and Functional Uses

Calendula is a treasured medicinal highly revered for its wound healing, lymphatic, and anti-inflammatory properties. It is an effective digestive remedy, as it supports healthy metabolism and relieves inflammation in the gut. 

As for its wound-healing properties, calendula-infused oil can be added to first-aid salves for cuts, scrapes, bruises, burns, and insect bites. Calendula is a popular medicinal plant, so any herbal remedies that call for “pot marigold” refer to Calendula officinalis. 

The resinous green base of the flower is the most medicinal part of the plant, while the edible petals can be added to soups or salads as a bright and beautiful garnish. 

Marigolds are NOT medicinally interchangeable with calendula, so they cannot be substituted for one or the other. That said, the flower petals of both African marigolds (T. erecta) and French marigolds (T. patula) are also edible and can be used as a garnish for soups and salads. 

Marigolds (Tagetes erecta, Mexican marigold, Aztec marigold, African marigold)
Marigolds (Tagetes erecta, Mexican marigold, Aztec marigold, African marigold)

Furthermore, some marigold species, such as Tagetes lucida, T. tenuifolia, and T. minuta, are traditional culinary and herbal remedies in Mexico and Central and South America. T. lucida, commonly known as Mexican tarragon, is a popular seasoning herb used in Mexican dishes. 

Wild Mexican marigold, or lemon marigold (T. tenuifolia), is especially relished for its lemony flavor, and T. minuta is a non-showy culinary herb used in South America.

Both calendula and marigold flowers can be used as dye plants. They produce a pale yellow color described as “poor man’s saffron.” 

Calendula and Marigold Garden Benefits

While calendulas and marigolds are two separate plants with differing medicinal uses, they share similar growing requirements and garden benefits. They both add beauty to the garden and attract a host of pollinators with their long blooming season. 

Their bright, showy flowers attract bees, butterflies, and countless other beneficial garden insects. 

Calendula and marigolds are self-seeding annuals that prefer full sun to part shade and well-draining soil. 

Marigolds are more pest and disease-resistant than calendulas and even produce a substance that suppresses nematodes. Thus, they are great companion plants for vegetables and other ornamentals. 

Calendula, however, can be prone to pests and diseases, including aphids, whiteflies, slugs, powdery mildew, and aster yellows. 

Calendula vs. Marigold: The Bottom Line

Radiant and cheery with their orange and yellow blooms, calendula, and marigold flowers are a gift to the garden.

Even though they’re distant relatives in the Asteraceae family, they are two separate plants – this is readily apparent in their differing growth structures, including their leaves, flowers, and seeds. 

Most importantly, calendula is a powerful medicinal plant; marigolds (Tagetes spp.) should not be substituted for Calendula officinalis as they do not share the same medicinal properties. 

The bottom line: if you plan to grow calendula for medicinal purposes, you must check the scientific name on the seed packet or seedlings tray to ensure you’re purchasing the medicinal species (Calendula officinalis) and not a marigold (Tagetes sp.) species. All calendula varieties are medicinal as long as they are C. officinalis.

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As an herbalist, my goal is to connect people with the healing powers of nature. Through my writings and herbal concoctions, I aim to guide others toward a healthier lifestyle using time-honored methods. With over four years of experience studying herbalism and organic gardening, I offer my knowledge to inspire others to explore the natural world, cultivate their own gardens, and rediscover their bond with the earth.