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Chamaemelum nobile (formerly know as Anthemis nobile) is native to Europe, Africa, and Asia. It has naturalized in North America and is widely cultivated. Chamomile is the Greek word meaning "ground apple"kamai, "on the ground" and melon, "apple". It is named such because of its apple-like fragrance. The common name chamomile is used for two different plants, however, both have such similar qualities that they can be used interchangeably. German chamomile, Matricaria recutita, is a tall, erect annual, while Roman chamomile is a 6" tall perennial with a stronger fragrance than the German. The botanical distinction between the two chamomiles is in the shape of hard-to-detect scales, located between every two florets in the daisy-like flowers. In C. nobile, these scales are short and blunt.
Chamomile is one of the best known herbs. For centuries, it has been used for its gentle healing properties. The Egyptians revered it for its virtues, and in their belief, it had the power to cure ague, (a fit of fever marked by chills and pain in the bones and joints; flu); they dedicated it to their gods. The Greeks and Romans recommended baths and poultices to relieve headache, disorders of the kidneys, liver, and bladder.
The chamomile tea Peter Rabbit's mother gave him to calm him has been a popular remedy throughout the ages. Because of its lovely scent, chamomile was used as a strewing herb in Medieval England. Strewing herbs was a common way to freshen a room during times when dry cleaning and other sanitation methods did not exist. The herbs chosen released their scent when trod upon. In times when there was no refrigeration, women immersed meat in chamomile to help eliminate the rancid smell of spoilage. It was also reputed to be an excellent insect repellent. In Spain, manzanilla, meaning "little apple", was used to make a fine sherry.
Harvest and Use: Chamomile is one of the world's best-loved herbs. Many believe it can cure anything. In fact, the Germans have a phrase to describe it, Alles zutraut, which means "capable of anything". It is the volatile oils derived from the flowers that give it its medicinal properties. For this reason, always cover the container when preparing tea. Steam will cause the evaporation of the very properties you want to retain. Use the tea to soothe nerves, for irritable bowel, poor appetite, and indigestion. Drink a cup at night before bed for insomnia, anxiety, and stress. Long-term use has a cumulative effect.
Try making a delightful herb jelly with a strong infusion. Follow directions on the pectin box. Chamomile jelly has a lovely honey-taste.
Inhaling a strong infusion helps clear up phlegm. Add a strong infusion to baby's bath to encourage sleep. Five drops of essential oil added to ¼ cup witch hazel is good for eczema or any other skin condition. Two or three drops in warm water left in a room overnight helps bad nasal mucus. Five to ten drops of tincture added to warm water makes a good bath for strained eyes or conjunctivitis.
Gardeners know chamomile as the plant's physician. No plant contributes more to the overall health of the garden. It benefits cucumbers and onion especially, and most herbs. I use a strong infusion on growing seedlings to prevent the soil fungal disease called "damping off". I grow it between the paving stones of my walkway and with my alpine strawberries. Most plants don't like being squashed underfoot, but chamomile doesn't seem to mind. It is common to find entire lawns of chamomile in England. What a treat it must be to mow such a lawn. I actually enjoy weeding the areas where chamomile grows.
Chamomile also has cosmetic uses. The tea makes a cleansing facial steam and hand soak and will soften and whiten the skin as well. A tea bag compress reduces "bags" under inflamed, tired, strained eyes. A blend of chamomile, hops, and valerian makes a relaxing herbal bath. A chamomile hair rinse is a good hair conditioner and, if used all the time, will lighten blond hair. In aromatherapy, the oil blends well with bergamot, lavender, lemon, neroli, rose, and ylang-ylang essential oils.
Harvest the flowers for medicinal use when the petals begin to turn back (recurve). It is painstaking and backbreaking work, but remember that one fresh chamomile flower will give more flavor than a teabag of the store-bought stuff. Dry them quickly to retain their rich pungent scent for months.
Caution: Do not use in pregnancy. It is a uterine stimulant. Because the flower contains pollen, collecting the flowers can cause contact dermatitis in those allergic to ragweed and plants in the family Compositae to which chamomile belongs.
Cultivation and Propagation: Roman chamomile is a low-growing, mat-forming, trailing evergreen perennial with hairy stems that branch freely. Thread-like leaves form tufts and give the plant a feathery appearance. The root is jointed and fibrous. Yellow blooms appear in early summer: one small, daisy-like flower on a long stalk, which droops when in bud. Wild chamomile has a single flower and will grow in any type soil. The flowers of the cultivated variety are double and are considered more desirable for healing purposes. Cultivated chamomile likes heavy, moist, dark loam with a pH of 7.0 in full sun to partial shade. It is hardy to zone 3. The fruit is small and dry, and as it forms, the center becomes more and more conical as the petals droop.
Roman Chamomile can be grown from seed, but the seed is fine and can drop into oblivion, unless the bed is well-prepared. Because seed often yields single flowers, acquire plants from a reputable nursery. To increase your supply, propagate the offshoots that the mother plant produces, setting them in well-manured soil.