The Comforts of Chamomile

Amanda Leahy on May 4th, 2019

For the tea savant and novice alike, chamomile is synonymous with comfort, and for very good reason. This mild and soothing herb has been used medicinally since ancient times, and continues to be popular as an herbal remedy and as the basis of a calming tea with many therapeutic benefits.

Chamomile’s relationship with humanity has been long documented, and remains multifaceted and ever-evolving. The word “chamomile” originates from the Greek khamaimelon, meaning “earth apple.” Pliny the Elder famously described the flower’s applelike scent in his “Naturalis Historia,” written in the first century. He, along with Hippocrates and other medical forefathers, is said to have prescribed it to treat a variety of ills, ranging from insomnia and fever to depression

In ancient Egypt, chamomile was used as a panacea for ailments of all kinds, as well as a cosmetic, an embalming oil agent, and the preferred tribute to Ra, the sun god.  Other folkloric uses of chamomile are numerous and easy to find if one is so inclined. Along with its storied history as a medicinal staple all over the world, chamomile is said to have been used as a medieval precursor to hops, a key ingredient in shampoo for the locks of Norse soldiers, a mosquito repellent, a bioremediator in sodic soils, and a naturally antimicrobial food additive. A Slovakian proverb states that one should always bow upon discovering it. 

Chamomile is a member of the Asteraceae/Compositae family, a large class of flowering plants and herbs known for its ability to thrive in a wide variety of climates. The daisy, dandelion, aster and sunflower are other recognizable members of this family. 

The two most common varieties of chamomile are “German” (Chamomilla recutita) and “Roman” (Chamaemelum nobile). Though there are only subtle differences between the species when it comes to scent and taste, Roman and German chamomile are quite different. 

Roman chamomile, native to Western Europe and North Africa, is a matlike, low-growing perennial that reaches a height of roughly 12 inches. It spreads by rooting out its hairy stems, each of which produces only one flower with flat white petals and a rounded, brilliant yellow center. If you live in North America, this is the type of chamomile you are likely to encounter. Often noted for its voracious ability to propagate, this is also undoubtedly the variety of chamomile referred to by Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1: “for though/the camomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster/it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted the/sooner it wears.”

German chamomile is native to Europe and western Asia, and is cultivated for commercial use in Hungary, Egypt, France and Eastern Europe. Unlike Roman chamomile, it’s  an annual and often grows to a height of 24 inches. Its many flowers, which branch out from fernlike stems, are distinct, with petals that appear to hang as if ready to drop from large, hollow conical centers. 

Though they differ in their chemical and essential-oil makeup, the distilled oil and floral extracts of both Roman and German chamomile contain large amounts of two important compounds: chamazulene and bisabolol. The vast majority of the medicinal and therapeutic uses of chamomile are the result of these compounds, which are widely recognized as being anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, carminative, antispasmodic, antiulcerative and sedative. In this vein, some great at-home uses include adding it to a bath to relieve muscle tension and promote relaxation, using it in a compress for skin and joint inflammation, and even gargling with chamomile oil or dried chamomile to soothe painful gums and teeth. 

This photo: ©SasaStock – stock.adobe.com. Top photo: ©powerstock – stock.adobe.com

To grow your own chamomile: 

Roman and German chamomile varieties are incredibly easy to grow and require very little care once established. Both varieties will thrive in dry soil and under cool conditions with partial shade, but will grow under full sun, too. 

Plant chamomile in spring or fall using seeds or the divisions of older plants. Be sure to cover the seeds or roots completely — at least 3 inches deep in soil. 

As a drought-tolerant plant, chamomile does not require heavy watering. Needs will vary depending on climate, sun and soil quality, but it generally will thrive without regular watering. 

Chamomile isn’t affected by many pests. It makes a great addition to herb and vegetable gardens as its scent can often repel pests. However, weakened plants may become susceptible to aphids, thrips and mealybugs. 

How to brew chamomile: 

Drying chamomile buds and flowers serves to concentrate the plant’s oil and flavor, and should be done for a period of one to two weeks, depending on conditions and humidity. 

Allow chamomile to air-dry naturally by layering the blossoms on a plate in a cool, dry place away from dust and sunlight. Alternatively, you can use a food dehydrator to dry chamomile quickly. Lay the flower blossoms on the screens and run at the lowest setting until dry. Test dried blossoms by crushing them — they should crumble easily in your fingers. Once dried, whole flower buds are best stored in a glass jar away from direct sunlight.

To make tea, use about a teaspoon of dried chamomile flowers per cup. Place the chamomile blossoms in a tea infuser, pour boiling water over the flowers, and then cover and steep for five to seven minutes.  

 

SOURCES:

http://abc.herbalgram.org/site/DocServer/CRCPRESSChamomile-Section_1.5978-1-4665-7759-6.pdf?docID=6362  “Introduction to Chamomile”

http://www.stevenfoster.com/education/monograph/chamomile.html  “Chamomile – Matricatria recutita”

https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/chamomile/roman-vs-german-chamomile.htm  “Roman vs. German Chamomile” 

https://growagoodlife.com/growing-chamomile-for-tea/  “Growing Chamomile for Tea” 

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