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A Comforting and Healing Herb – and a Soothing Back-to-School Remedy
By Deb Soule
The chamomile most commonly used by herbalists is the annual variety often referred to as German chamomile. Its Latin name, previously Matricaria chamomilla, is now Matricaria recutita. Chamomile belongs to the Compositae (Daisy) family. This particular species grows wild in meadows throughout Europe and western Asia and is cultivated extensively in Germany, Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Egypt and Argentina. Related species grow wild in North America, such as the wild pineapple weed (Matricaria matricarioides), which is commonly found along sidewalks and dirt roads in Maine. This species smells similar to pineapples when the flowers are rubbed between one’s fingers, hence its common name.
Planting and Harvest
In northern New England and into the Maritimes, chamomile can be directly seeded into the garden soon after planting peas by scattering seeds and gently pressing them into the soil with your hand or with the back of a hoe, or by lightly scratching the soil with the back of a rake. I prefer to seed chamomile into a plug tray with 50 plugs and transplant the seedlings 6 to 12 inches apart into the garden anywhere from early May through the middle of June. This allows each plant to have more space to grow, thus producing many more flowers per plant. The seeds take 8 to 12 days to germinate, and since they need light to germinate, they need to be gently tamped into the soil with your fingers when they are planted indoors, and the soil must be kept moist. Chamomile prefers growing in sandy, well-drained, drier soils. If the soil is rich in nitrogen, the plant will produce lush green growth with fewer flowers.
The center of this tiny, daisy like flower is yellow with ten or more white ray flowers surrounding it. The stalks are very thin, growing up to two feet, and the leaf segments are delicate and finely divided. Plants bloom for around three weeks. If the temperature is hot when they bloom the blossoms will come and go more quickly and the plants will get leggy. Gather the flowers every few days when the yellow centers have filled out and before the petals and centers begin to turn brown. Harvesting the flowers by hand is one of my favorite things to do in the garden, as the aroma is relaxing and comforting. I like to do this task before lunch and then stretch out for a nap with my dog. For gardeners and farmers interested in growing chamomile on a larger scale, I suggest buying a small chamomile rake, which looks like a small version of a blueberry rake. Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine, sells them. Be aware that the rake will take both the large ripe flowers along with the smaller undeveloped flowers and will require gentle handling so that you don’t rip out the plants. Chamomile dries easily on screens and can be steeped for tea or tinctured fresh in vodka or brandy.
Soothing and Medicinal Uses
Chamomile tea is a common remedy for a range of ailments. It is a favorite bedtime tea for children and adults, soothing, relaxing and calming the body. It is used for a number of nervous system complaints, including anxiety, headaches, premenstrual stress, menstrual cramps, menopausal depression, indigestion, and other digestive problems, such as diarrhea, colic, gas, stomach cramps and loss of appetite. Its bittersweet taste makes it valuable in stimulating various gastric juices and improving digestion. The longer you let your chamomile flowers infuse in your tea pot (20 to 30 minutes), the more bitter they become and the more suitable for digestive problems.
Children and adults commonly get stomach aches when they are tense or emotionally upset. Chamomile tea or tincture is specific for emotion-related digestive problems, as described above, and for peptic ulcers, spastic colon and colitis. It also promotes tissue regeneration for patients who have undergone surgery on their urinary, intestinal and genital systems. The volatile oils contained in the flowers have an antiinflammatory action in the stomach and intestines, which helps heal the mucosa lining of the digestive tract. Quality chamomile can decrease histamine, thereby relieving various symptoms brought on by allergies, such as puffy eyes, skin swelling and headaches. Chamomile is important to take two to four times a day when one has a bacterial or fungal infection, as it inactivates bacteria, fungi and toxins, including staph and an overgrowth of Candida.
Chamomile tea or glycerite is safe and soothing for infants or children who are teething or who have colic or other stomach upsets. The tea especially benefits hyperactive children, helping to calm their nervous activity and become more grounded. Chamomile tea or glycerite is also useful for children who are starting school or are traveling and feel tense, nervous or high strung. Besides using the herb orally, you can make a 1 ounce spray bottle with water and a few drops of the essential oil of chamomile to spray around the house, the bedroom or the car. A homeopathic preparation made from chamomile, called chamomilla, is available in health food stores and helps calm the body and spirit of an irritated and upset child and ease the uncomfortable symptoms associated with teething and colic. A warm chamomile bath is a delightful gift to yourself or a child at the end of a long day. Add a few quarts of a strongly brewed chamomile tea or a few drops of essential oil to your bath water. The fragrance helps calm and comfort the body and spirit and eases weariness. Monks during the Middle Ages placed patients who were depressed, exhausted or ill on raised garden beds covered with the low growing, perennial Roman chamomile to help them heal. (Roman chamomile is much more bitter as a tea than the annual chamomile. To make an herbal steam with chamomile flowers, put 1 tablespoon of dried flowers in a glass or ceramic bowl and pour 1 pint of boiling water over the flowers, or place two or three drops of the essential oil in a pan of steaming (not boiling) water. Place your head over the steam, cover your head and the pan with a towel, and breathe in the medicated steam for several minutes. The anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties of chamomile help heal inflamed mucous membrane linings of the upper respiratory passages. The direct contact of the vapor on the tissues also breaks up and moves out excessive mucous in the sinuses and nasal area, making this plant specific for acute and chronic sinusitis, colds and hay fever.
The uses of chamomile seem endless. Herbal creams, salves and washes with chamomile are used topically for dry, sensitive skin, enlarged capillaries, acne, skin allergies with facial puffiness, eczema, diaper rash, burns and bruises. A cup of chamomile tea can be used as a hair rinse for lightening the hair. Two chamomile tea bags can be steeped in hot water for five minutes and placed on the eyes to relieve eye strain. If you are highly allergic to plants in the aster and daisy family, then you may want to sip a small amount of chamomile when using it for the first time to see if it creates an allergic reaction in you.
Chamomile is truly a remarkable healing herb, often overlooked and forgotten, for it is small and unobtrusive. Once you have smelled the fragrance of this herb either in a garden, when sipping a cup of warm tea, or when lying in a relaxing bath, I hope it will become your friend.
About the author: Deb owns Avena Botanicals in West Rockport, Maine, and is the author of The Roots of Healing – A Woman’s Book of Herbs.