Chamomile is a traditional medicinal herb native to western Europe, India, and western Asia. It has become abundant in the United States, where it has escaped cultivation to grow freely in pastures, cornfields, roadsides, and other sunny, well-drained areas. The generic name, chamomile, is derived from the Greek, khamai, meaning "on the ground," and melon, meaning "apple." The official medicinal chamomile is the German chamomile Matricaria recutita. Chamomile was revered as one of nine sacred herbs by the ancient Saxons. The Egyptians valued the herb as a cure for malaria and dedicated chamommile to their sun god, Ra. Two species of this sweet-scented plant, Roman chamomile and German chamomile, have been called the true chamomile because of their similar appearance and medicinal uses.
Roman chamomile Chamaemelum nobile is a member of the Asteraceae, or daisy family. It is a hardy, lowgrowing, perennial. Because of the creeping roots and compact, mat-like growth of this species it is sometimes called lawn chamomile. Roman chamomile releases a pleasant, apple scent when walked upon. It was used as a strewing herb during the middle ages to scent the floors and passageways in the home and to deter insects. The Spanish call the herb manzanilla, or "little apple." This fragrant evergreen is a garden favorite. It is also called the physician herb because of its beneficial effect on other herbs as a companion in the garden. Blossoms grow singly on long stalks attached to the erect, branching, hairy stems. The tiny, daisy-like flowers, blooming May to September, have a small yellow solid cone surrounded by white rays. The leaves are twice divided and have a feathery appearance. They are light green, and somewhat shiny.
German chamomile Matricaria recutita, or Chamomilla recutita is a hardy, self-seeding annual herb. It has long been cultivated in Germany to maximize its medicinal properties. The hollow, bright gold cone of the blossom is ringed with numerous white rays. The herb has also been called scented mayweed, and Balder's eyelashes, after Balder, the Norse God of Light. German chamomile is also a sprawling member of the Asteraceae family, as it closely resembles the Roman chamomile.
Dyer's chamomile Anthemis tinctora, also known as yellow chamomile, or golden marquerite, is valued for its use primarily as a dye plant. This native of southern and central Europe is also found in Britain and North America, where it grows wild in many places. It closely resembles the other species, but does not have the medicinal properties of Roman and German chamomile. This species may be biennial or perennial. Both the disk and the rays of the blossom are golden yellow, yielding a distinctive dye that varies from a bright yellow to a more brownish-yellow tint. The type of mordant used influences the color produced. Dyer's
The aromatic flower heads and herba (leaves) of both Roman and German chamomile are used medicinally. They are highly scented with volatile, aromatic oil, including the heat-sensitive Azulene, which is the blue chamomile essential oil. The phytochemical constituents in chamomile also include flavonoids, coumarins, plant acids, fatty acids, cyanogenic glycosides, choline, tannin, and salicylate derivatives. This bittersweet herb acts medicinally as a tonic, anodyne, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-allergenic, and sedative. Traditionally, a mild infusion of the herb has been safely used to calm restless children, and to ease colic and teething pain in babies. It is also effective in relieving acid indigestion and abdominal pain. Its carminative properties relieve intestinal gas, and it helps in cases of diarrhea, constipation, and peptic ulcers. The herbal tea can ease symptoms of colds and flu by relieving headache and reducing fever. The infusion is also helpful to treat toothache, arthritis, gout, and premenstrual tension. It may also be used in douche preparations, or sitz baths. As an external wash in strong infusion, or decoction, or as part of a hot compress, the herb can soothe burns and scalds, skin rashes, and sores. Chamomile can be used in a douche, as a gargle for mouth ulcers, as a soothing eye wash for conjunctivitis, and as a hair rinse to brighten the hair. Chamomile blossoms may also be used as an herbal aromatic treatment, providing a tonic lift with its pleasing scent. This use of chamomile is especially popular among Hispanics living in the southwestern United States, who use the herb at significantly higher levels than the rest of the population.
Chamomile is most often prepared as an infusion of the blossoms of German chamomile, and less commonly of Roman chamomile. Traditionally the tiny blossoms are picked on midsummers' eve. The best time to harvest is on a sunny day when the mass of blossoms is at its fullness in the morning. Harvesting chamomile blossoms can be painstaking work, requiring a gardner's best patience. Pinch off the flower head, leaving the stem. Fresh or dried blossoms may be used in herbal preparations.
Blossoms to be dried for storage should be spread singly on a screen or mat and placed in a well-ventilated place, out of direct sun, with a temperature close to 95°F (35°C). The rapid drying will preserve much of the volatile oil and other medicinal properties. A few blossoms go a long way with this pleasant and safe herbal ally. Store dried blossoms in tightly sealed, glass containers, away from light. They will maintain potency for about one year. Chamomile is prolific, and the plant blossoms frequently throughout the summer. Sometimes two or three harvests can be made in one season.
Chamomile tea may be made from an infusion of blossoms prepared as a tisane, for a single, soothing cup, or in a larger quantity for use throughout the day. Chamomile combines well with mints, such as lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) or spearmint (Mentha spica-ta), combined in equal quantity. For a tisane, use 1 tsp of dried blossoms, or 1.5 tsp of freshly picked flowers in a warm cup. Heat water to the boiling point and pour over the blossoms in glass container. Cover, and infuse for 3–5 minutes. Let strain. Be careful not to oversteep chamomile, lest it lose its delicate flavor to a bitter edge. Standard dose is up to three cups per day. The prepared tea will keep for a day or two in the refrigerator.
To prepare a chamomile decoction, which is a stronger preparation, let the plant parts steep in a covered nonmetallic pot for at least ten minutes. The decoction may be used as a skin wash, hair rinse, mouth wash, or to bathe wounds.
An extract of the essential oil can be prepared by placing 2 oz (57 g) of fresh blossoms into a glass container and covering the plant with 0.5–1 pt (0.24–0.47 l) of olive oil. Place the mixture on a sunny window sill for about one week. Strain and store in a dark container with a tight-fitting lid. The oil remains potent for up to one year. It is best when applied warm.
Chamomile has been used over the centuries and is generally considered a safe and gentle herbal rememdy that may be used daily as a calming tea. Persons who may be allergic to such pollen-bearing plants as chamomile would be wise to experiment with this herbal remedy with some caution.
The moderate internal use of chamomile preparations has no known side effects; however, some herbalists warn that the herb, when taken internally in excessive doses, can induce vomiting and produce vertigo (dizziness). With regard to the external use of chamomile preparations, a small number of persons experience mild skin irritation.
There are no contraindications for using this gentle, healing herb. Chamomile does combine well with other herbs that enhance its pleasant and medicinal qualities.
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Rebecca J. Frey, PhD