For several thousand years the chamomile plant has been used for its wonderful healing properties. The ancient Egyptians knew it and the Greek physician Dioscorides used it to treat headaches, liver and bladder problems. Around 900 BCE Asclepiades advised his patients to take some on a regular basis to stay healthy. He was so skilled a herbalist that he declared he would renounce his profession if he ever became ill. He eventually died at a ripe old age as the result of an accident. The Roman naturalist Pliny praised its properties and the famous seventeenth century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper recommended the herb for kidney problems, fevers, digestive difficulties, and ‘to bring down women’s courses’. Country folk all over used it for a variety of purposes, growing it in cottage gardens and herb plots. The present day British Herbal Pharmacopoeia recommends it for the treatment of nausea, anorexia, painful periods and stomach upsets caused by stress.
There are several varieties of chamomile but only two are used medicinally. One is German [or Hungarian] chamomile [Matricaria recutica], and the other Roman chamomile [Chamaemelum nobile], with the double flowered version of the latter being called English chamomile. The plant grows wild all over Europe, but especially in the Mediterranean region. It was widely cultivated before the Second World War in Belgium, England, France and Saxony, with English flower heads at the time considered to be the best for making essential oil. British and German immigrants introduced the herb into North America and American herbalists were soon making use of the plant to treat wounds, fevers, menstrual cramps, and to prevent premature labour.
It is chiefly the flowers of the chamomile that are used medicinally. Chamomile is one of the best known types of herb tea and many varieties are available commercially, but if you wish to make your own just pour a cup of boiling water over two teaspoons of fresh or dried flowers. Infuse for ten minutes in a covered vessel to prevent the escape of steam [as the medicinal effect of the flowers is impaired by evaporation]. Strain and sweeten with a little honey if you like.
The properties of both types of chamomile are very similar and they are often used interchangeably, though Roman chamomile is said to have superior therapeutic virtues in the treatment of nausea, indigestion, vomiting and loss of appetite. German chamomile has exceptional anti-inflammatory and stress relieving properties, and is gentle and safe for relieving stomach acidity, bloating, wind, colic and irritable bowel syndrome. It is the type most commonly used in commercial chamomile tea and has an aromatic, slightly bitter taste with a scent vaguely reminiscent of apples. Chamomile tea is a harmless remedy for indigestion. It acts to relax the smooth muscle of the digestive tract and has a similar effect on the smooth muscle of the uterus.
Chamomile has long been used to treat women’s complaints as evidenced by the generic name ‘matricaria’ which is derived from the Latin matrix meaning ‘womb’. The Egyptians may have been the first to use the plant this way, but present-day German medical practitioners still advocate the use of chamomile tea for menstrual cramps. So high is the herb’s reputation in Germany it is called alles zutraut meaning ‘capable of anything’. It is worth trying a soothing cup of chamomile tea for painful cramps, but pregnant women should not drink very large quantities of chamomile tea as it is also used to bring on delayed periods.
Chamomile is a mild and gentle tranquilliser with no known side effects. When you are anxious or apprehensive sip a cup of chamomile tea to calm you down, or massage a little well diluted chamomile essential oil into your pulse points. Alternatively you could throw a handful of fresh or dried flowers into a warm bath, lay back and soak up the relaxing vibes. Culpeper declared that bathing any part of the body with a decoction of chamomile removes the weariness and pain from it. Chamomile tea was once considered a sure-fire folk remedy for nightmares, and while this may or may not be true the tea may certainly be utilized to ensure a good night’s sleep. Take a cup at bedtime if you are having difficulty sleeping. Make a sleep inducing bath vinegar by placing a handful of chamomile flowers and a few pieces of dried valerian root in a heat proof jar. Pour over a cup of boiling white vinegar and leave to infuse for two weeks, shaking gently several times a day [when you remember!]. Strain and bottle and pour a little into your bedtime bath. An alternative remedy for insomnia involves stuffing a small pillowcase with dried chamomile flowers [these can be combined with hop flowers if you like]. Sew the pillow closed and place it on top of your own pillow and breathe in the relaxing aroma to send you gently off to sleep.
To relieve inflamed arthritic joints try two cups of chamomile tea a day to reduce the inflammation, or massage in some soothing dilute chamomile oil. To make a warming poultice sew up some small cotton bags and stuff them with dried flowers. Secure the neck and boil up the bags in water. Allow them to cool a little and apply them to aching joints to heat and ease them.
A German scientific trial in the 1980s proved that chamomile is very effective in healing wounds. To treat small cuts and scrapes dip a cloth in some chamomile infusion [tea] and apply to the wound.
Chamomile also helps prevent infection by stimulating the white blood cells. Use an infusion as a mouthwash for inflammations of the mouth or as an eye bath for inflamed and sore eyes. Gargle with chamomile infusion for a sore throat. Some find that German chamomile helps relieve hay fever and asthma – using a large heat proof bowl place a handful of flowers in it and pour a pint of boiling water over them. Drape a towel over your head and bowl to prevent the steam escaping and inhale the steam.
The flowers are also used to make essential oil. The oil made from Roman chamomile is yellow, while the oil made from German chamomile is a much darker blue. Aromatherapists use both types externally to treat acne, rashes, dryness, broken veins, burns, arthritis, rheumatism, muscular pain, painful menstrual cramps, the menopause, irregular periods, headaches, migraine, stress, depression, hysteria, insomnia, childhood tantrums, neuralgia and nervous tension. Chamomile essential oil is widely available, though the oil is subject to restriction in some countries. It is always best to get advice from a qualified aromatherapist before you start using any essential oil, though most aromatherapists believe that chamomile is so safe it may be used on children. Any essential oil should always be used well diluted in carrier oil such as grapeseed or almond oil [try 15 drops of essential oil to one third of a cup of carrier oil]. Aromatherapists consider chamomile oil to be a middle note perfume that blends well with geranium, lavender and patchouli.
If you can’t obtain chamomile essential oil but have plenty of fresh flowers available you can make your own very safe and effective infused oil. Pack a clear glass jar with flowers and fill up the jar with sunflower, almond or some other type of light vegetable oil [don’t use mineral oil]. Seal the jar and leave on a sunny windowsill for two weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain off the flowers and bottle the oil. If you want stronger scented oil add more fresh flowers to your strained oil and repeat the process.
Chamomile’s reputation extends to healing other plants as well as people. It is known as ‘the plant’s physician’ and is said to be able to cure any plant it grows next to and to keep it free of insects. For some reason even bees hate the scent and will not venture near it. It used to be said that nothing contributed so much to the health of a garden as a few chamomile plants dotted about it.
To grow chamomile you will need a sunny situation and a well-drained soil. The plant thrives in dry sandy soil, though the double form [known as English chamomile and preferred by many herbalists] will need a richer, moister soil. To grow from seed, plant in May and transplant the seedlings when they are large enough to handle. Plant with a distance of 18 inches between each one. Firm them in and keep them well weeded during the summer. The flowers may be picked throughout the summer as they open on warm, dry days. Dry carefully and slowly and store in airtight containers.
The whole of the chamomile plant is aromatic. The ancient Greeks called it ground apple [kamai melon], since it smells of apples and grows prostrate along the ground. The Spanish flavored a sherry with chamomile and called it manzanilla which means ‘little apple’. The scent of the plant is released when it is crushed or walked on and for this reason the low growing variety has sometimes been employed to make chamomile lawns. Amazingly the plant actually seems to like being walked on and flourishes under the mistreatment, as the old saying has it:
Like a camomile bed
The more it is trodden
The more it will spread.
In the language of flowers chamomile is ‘patience in adversity’; probably from this ability to withstand being walked all over. Another way to exploit this virtue is to plant up a chamomile garden seat. These may be fashioned from wooden tubs and crates filled with earth and planted with low growing chamomile. When you sit on your herb seat the balmy fragrance will be released. The same property made chamomile a favourite strewing herb during the Middle Ages when it was the custom to scatter pleasant smelling herbs on the floors of a house to keep the atmosphere sweet.
Chamomile is widely used in cosmetics, particularly hair care products and shampoos for blondes. A final, lightening rinse for blond hair may be made with chamomile infusion. It also makes a good skin cleanser and astringent. For a soothing skin treatment infuse a handful of chamomile flowers in a pint of boiling water. Strain and soak a cloth in the warm liquid and use as a compress. Add some chamomile infusion to your bath to relax you and cleanse your skin.
Naturally, chamomile also has magical virtues. The pretty white rayed petals and yellow-centred flowers of the plant suggested to the ancients that it was associated with the sun and sacred to the sun god. The Egyptians dedicated it to Ra while the Norse called it, ‘Baldur’s Brow’, because the flower was as pure as his forehead. It was one of the Anglo-Saxons nine sacred herbs, and was called maythen. As a herb of the sun, chamomile connects with the sun’s power of regeneration, healing and protection. A cup of chamomile tea may be taken to connect with these energies, to heal and regenerate the spirit within. Add chamomile flowers to incense dedicated to the sun and sun gods, healing and protection. Add chamomile flowers to your ritual bath to tune into the energies of Midsummer, throw some on the bonfire or add a few to the ritual cup. Plant some chamomile in the garden as a guardian herb to deter negativity gaining from your patch.
© Anna Franklin