Midsummer’s Eve and the Calendula officinalis – the Pot Marigold.

Midsummer’s Eve usually relates to European celebrations that accompany the Summer Solstice, either on the actual solstice or between June 21 and June 24, depending on the culture.

The celebration predates Christianity and is thought to be related to ancient fertility practices and ceremonies performed to ensure a successful harvest. With the conversion of Europe to Christianity, the celebrations were adapted to honour St. John the Baptist. Some pagan customs still persist, such as the bonfires, which originally were believed to ward off evil spirits, and the focus on nature, which harkens back to when plants and water were thought to have magical healing powers on Midsummer’s Eve.

One such plant believed to have magical properties was calendula (marigolds) which flowers at the beginning of most months. Calendula has numerous mythological properties, such as the ability to strip a witch of her will, or wreaths of marigolds hung over a door would prevent evil from entering. They are specifically picked at Midsummer for their supposed healing properties.

There are a number of marigold species preserved in the Booth Museum collections, however the focus of this blog entry is an pressed example of Calendula officinalis – the Pot Marigold. Although commonly found in Southern England, this example was collected in St Petersburg, Russia.

I chose this particular specimen for its link to the world of medicine. It was collected sometime between 1800 and 1819 by Dr Alexander Crichton. Born in Edinburgh in December 1763, he qualified in Leyden, The Netherlands, in 1783, and worked as a surgeon in several European cities, including Paris, Stuttgart andVienna before moving to London in 1789 and joining the Royal College of Surgeons. By 1791, he had retrained as a physician and held the position of physician at Westminster Hospital from 1794 – 1801.

In 1803 Crichton was offered the position of physician to the household of Tsar Alexander I of Russia, and was evidently trusted as he was made personal physician to the Tsar and the Dowager Empress, as well as becoming the head of all medical services in Russia. He held the position until his retirement in 1819, gaining a number of Russian and Prussian honours on the way.

His position and travels across Europe allowed him to indulge his other passion for the natural world. During his time abroad, he collected a large number of plants, of which our humble Calendula makes up a tiny part of. These plants were all lovingly pressed and preserved in leather bound hardback albums.

One of Crichton’s volumes of plants
One of Crichton’s volumes of plants

Crichton probably had ready access to Calendula in his career, as it was traditionally used in a number of remedies. Modern pharmacological studies have shown fungicidal, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties in calendula extracts. It is also used in a number of treatments for acne and dermatitis, however studies are inconclusive on its effectiveness.

Crichton returned to England after his retirement, and died in Sevenoaks in 1856. His grandson, Col. E.D. Crichton donated seven volumes of plants, as well as a huge number of geological samples to the Brighton Museum collections. The majority had been collected by his grandfather during his travels.

Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences

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