Everyone knows chamomile. It is probably the only tea non-herb lovers recognise. Other herbalists rave about this member of the daisy family. I knew many of its uses but it has only been in the past three months I have truly bonded with this plant.
There are several different forms of chamomile growing wild across the country but two are most commonly used, the former being preferred as it is less bitter. Matricaria chamomilla (also known as chamomila recutita) is the German or wild chamomile, a native of Europe and Asia. Roman chamomile (anthemis nobilis) is a native of Europe.
The name, chamomile, comes from two Greek words, khamae, meaning “on the ground” and melon meaning “apple”. The plant has been used medicinally for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians dedicated it to Ra, the sun god, because it could be used against agues and fevers. The Greek physician, Dioscorides, recommended it for fevers in 800BC.
It was also well known in Anglo-Saxon times when it went by the name, Maythe. It is one of the herbs to appear in the Nine Herb Charm recorded in the Lacnunga manuscript.
“Be mindful now, maythe, of what you made known,
Of what you finished at the alder-tree ford
So that he never should give up his life for disease
Once maythe was prepared for his food.”
Anne McIntyre writes that chamomile was highly valued as a strewing herb in the Middle Ages, it’s pungent odour released through incense burning to keep foul smells and infection at bay. She says “It was hung in bunches over babies’ cots to protect them and keep them healthy.” This reflects modern use of chamomile with babies and young children to ease colic, fevers, digestive upsets and to calm over-tired infants. The tea can be added to a child’s bath, ensuring a good night’s sleep.
Beatrix Potter may not have had children of her own, but she knew her plantlore when she wrote “Peter Rabbit was sent to bed with chamomile tea” to ease his stomach ache from eating all the lettuces while Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail enjoyed the fruits of their blackberry picking with cream!
Anne McIntyre also tells us that chamomile was traditionally used in love potions and weddings. Apparently you should wash your face and hair with chamomile to attract your beloved. Its effects cover all ages as historically chamomile has been used as a grave plant, to ease the passage of the dead into the world to come.
The use of chamomile continued along the centuries. Culpepper wrote that “Camomile takes away weariness, eases pains, to what part of the body soever they be applied.” We now know that chamomile has the ability to relax smooth muscle throughout the body, so whether you have stomach ache, period pains or any other muscular discomfort, chamomile can ease this whether it is drunk as a tea or applied as a fomentation to the affected area.
To apply a fomentation
Make a strong chamomile tea. Place in a bowl and soak a clean length of cloth in the liquid. (A piece of old, clean sheet is ideal.) Wring out the cloth gently so not all the liquid is expelled and place over the affected area, making sure it is not too hot. Cover with a towel and keep in place until the cloth is cold. Replace regularly or, if possible, sleep in it overnight.
When Gabrielle Hatfield was researching folk uses of chamomile, a woman in Suffolk told her that an infusion of the flowers drunk cold, night and morning, was used to treat gallstones. This ties in with Pechey’s story, published in 1694, where a man cured himself of the stone using a strong decoction of chamomile flowers and then went on to successfully treat several other sufferers in the same way.
The seventeenth century herbalist, Salmon, listed similar properties of chamomile. He noted that as well as provoking “Urine and the Terms, [chamomile] facilitates the Birth and brings away the dead Child and After-birth.”
In 1914, W T Fernie called chamomile a physician for the garden. He wrote, “It is remarkable that each chamomile is a plant physician, since nothing contributes so much to the health of a garden as a number of chamomile herbs dispersed about it. Singularly enough, if another plant is drooping and apparently dying, in nine cases out of ten it will recover if you place a herb of chamomile near it.” Chamomile tea poured over newly transplanted plants will help their transition into their new home.
How can such a seemingly fragile, delicately flowered plant achieve so much? When Anne McIntyre talked about chamomile during my first herb festival in 2010, she appeared both reverent and excited. She spoke about the uses as a digestive tonic and that rang a bell for me. The first time I grew chamomile, I brewed a tea from my dried flowers and looked forward to a taste similar to commercial tea bags. It was so bitter I couldn’t drink it!
When I complained to a herbalist friend of mine she laughed at me, “Don’t you know chamomile is a bitter?” This was several years ago and I felt duly chastened for expecting home grown to taste anything like a commercial brand. It also put me off chamomile for a long time.
The good thing my friend gave me was the use of chamomile water on red, hot, angry eczema. I complained to her that I’d been using a salve on my sore finger and nothing was working. “Don’t put oil on any hot skin,” she told me, “It will only keep the heat in and make things worse. You need something cooling to take the heat away.”
She gave me some chamomile water in a dropper bottle. I have to admit I was sceptical but it worked. For a long time, I thought a floral water must be something highly specialised and distilled until I found a recipe by Gail Faith Edwards. I made elderflower water first which is also extremely cooling and then made chamomile water the following year when I grew a new plant crop from seed. I gave some to a friend who suffers with whole body eczema when he is severely stressed. He washed the affected area with the water and reported it took the heat away and soothed the skin in a way he’d not achieved before.
Place fresh or dry chamomile aerial parts in a stainless steel or enamel saucepan and cover with water. Cover and slowly heat to just below a simmer. Turn the heat as low as it will go and continue heating for about ten minutes tightly covered. Turn off the heat and allow all to sit, covered, overnight. The next morning, strain the infusion through muslin or kitchen towel to remove all the floating debris. Add a quarter of the volume in alcohol as a preservative. Bottle and keep in a cool dark place. This should retain its value for a year or more if not frequently opened. If you are using medicinally, place in a small dropper bottle and administer as required.
Chamomile is not just a relaxant, febrifuge or anti-viral, it is also an effective anti-fungal. It was Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley who first brought this use to my attention in their HerbSociety article. Their recipe for making chamomile vinegar was to add a handful of chamomile flowers to 570ml of cider vinegar. This is then steeped for 2 weeks before straining and bottling.
The dosage they recommend is to use 1 teaspoon to a cupful of water as a regular wash for the genitals, to restore skin pH, and discourage fungal infections. They also suggest using 2 teaspoons to a cup of water as a douche, or a wash, for vaginal or penile thrush or other itchy conditions in the area.
I tried to use this remedy when my daughter suffered with a bout of under-arm thrush as a teenager. Unfortunately I forgot the vinegar should be diluted and the pain of putting it onto sore skin was too much for her to continue the treament. (I'll know better if there is a next time!)
Non and Chris' chamomile wash for travellers
To prepare lint wipes for travelling, use 3 teaspoons of the chamomile/cider vinegar wash to a cup of water. Cut pieces of lint to just fit and airtight tin and sprinkle enough of the mixture onto each piece to just dampen it.
Despite all these wonderful uses, I still didn’t believe chamomile was as good as everyone said until last October. The plant has been very patient with me. Luckily, I did plant a new crop from seed last spring and was surprised how well it grew over the sodden summer. As it was there, I harvested the aerial parts whenever the flowers started to bloom and was delighted how much I’d gathered when I came to put it all into a glass jar from the various paper bags in which it had been drying. I divided the flower heads from the stems, intending to try making tea just from the flowers.
Then came the night in October when I suffered from the worst stomach ache I have ever experienced. No vomiting, no diarrhoea just unmitigating pain. After several hours of clutching a hot water bottle, I dragged myself out of bed and down to the kitchen where I retrieved the large jar of dried chamomile stems and made a mugful of chamomile tea. It tasted delicious and as I laid myself down again on the bed I could feel my whole body relaxing and I slept. The effect lasted for about four hours before the pain woke me again but this time I asked Chris to make the chamomile tea. It worked and I slept again, waking a further four hours later without the pain which didn’t return.
From that moment, I finally understood chamomile. It worked. It really worked and it didn’t taste dreadful! I was sold and chamomile was my new best friend. You still have to be respectful. Too much of the plant in your tea and its powerful astringency will turn your mouth so dry you can’t finish your drink. This is a problem at 4am when you need to sleep!
Chamomile can help with both constipation and diarrhoea because it helps to regulate peristalsis. When a nurse manager friend of mine was suffering with a recurrent upset stomach following a visit to Pakistan, I recommended she try chamomile and raspberry leaf as no pharmaceutical intervention was helping. She reported the two plants stopped all her discomfort within a few days.
Anne McIntyre explained how chamomile can be useful in strengthening the immune system. “Everything starts with a well-balanced digestive system. If you have that, your immune system will flourish.” She calls chamomile the flower of equilibrium, keeping us in balance throughout our lives. Now that I have finally opened myself to chamomile, I can agree with her. To me, it feels as if she wraps me up in a caring hug, holding me safe until my body can heal itself once more.
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Isbn 978 0 140 51577 0
McIntyre, A The Complete Floral Healer 1996 Gaia Books Ltd ISBN 08069 8689 1
McIntyre, A The Complete Herbal Tutor 2010 Gaia Books Ltd ISBN 9781856753180
Pollington, S Leechcraft 2000 Anglo-Saxon Books ISBN 1 989281 238
Wood, M The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants 2008 North Atlantic Books ISBN 9 781556 436925