Chamomile

by Mindy Yang

There are many species of chamomile growing in temperate climates. All have attractive, finely divided leaves, and daisy-like flowers. The sweet, common or Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, once known as Anthemis nobilis) is very highly valued as a herb; so is the wild or German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla or recutita, known also as the scented mayweed). Chamaemelum comes from the Greek for ‘apples on the ground’ because the plant is low and mat-forming, and leaves and flowers have an apple fragrance; matricaria comes from the Latin matrix, womb, because chamomile was and still is effective in treating menstrual problems. The sweet variety flowers from June to August, the wild from May to August; the former reach a height of about 15-23 cm (6-9 in), the latter up to 1 m (3 ft).

Chamomile was apparently sacred to the Ancient Egyptians, according to Hippocrates who ‘dedicated it to the Sun because it cured agues’. By the seventeenth century, chamomile was well established in monastery and domestic herb gardens as a medicine and beauty herb – it had been taken to the New World by the Pilgrim Fathers – and in the late nineteenth century, the herb was commercially grown in Mitcham, Surrey, alongside the famous lavender, for medicinal purposes.

CHAMOMILE ESSENTIAL OIL

Distilled from the freshly dried flowers, the oil of sweet chamomile is pastel bluish, and later turns greenish yellow. The oil from the wild chamomile is a deeper color, and makes a stronger, less acrid oil. The principal constituents: The most important part is azulene, a fatty aromatic substance which is anti-inflammatory and promotes rapid healing of skin problems and wounds. This substance is not present in the flower, but is formed during the distillation of the oil.

USES
  • The oil’s main properties are tonic, digestive, sedative, anti-allergic and antiseptic. Indeed, chamomile oil and a few others were com¬monly used until the Second World War as natural disinfectants and antiseptics in hospitals and surgeries. The antiseptic power of the plant and its oil is said to be 120 times that of sea or salt water.
  • Many of the claims for chamomile made by the great herbalists still hold good. In his 1656 Earthly Paradise, Parkinson wrote that in bathing, it could be used to ‘comfort and strengthen the sound and to ease pains in the diseased’. A few drops of the essential oil can be added to a warm bath to remove weariness and ease pain in any part of the body. Such a fragrant bath could also be a tonic for children and old people who have been ill. For general aches and pains, rub in a mixture of 10 ml (2 tsp) grapeseed oil, 2 drops camphor oil and 4- drops chamomile oil after a chamomile bath. A simpler massage oil made with 10 ml (2 tsp) soya and 3 drops chamomile can be massaged into the spine of a weary child after a warm chamomile bath. Chamomile is one of the gentlest essential oils, and so is ideal for use with children: a drop of the essential oil mixed with a dessert spoon of grapeseed oil and put on an index finger can safely be massaged into the gums of a fretful teething baby for relief.
  • Dried flower tisanes and inhalations would also relieve the pains of headache, migraine, ‘flu, coughs, facial neuralgia and sinusitis. For the latter, mix 5 ml (1 tsp) soya oil and 4- drops chamomile, and massage for a few minutes around the sinus area and eyes from the nose to the temples: there should be immediate relief. For general irritability or an intermittent nervous fever, massage clockwise on the solar plexus, and bottom of the spine once or twice a day: use 5 drops chamomile to 5 ml (1 tsp) soya.
  • Chamomile is good for allergies like hay fever, too. Put a few drops in a bowl of hot water beside your bed, or on a clean handkerchief left near the pillow. This would also help relieve the symptoms of asthma, catarrh, bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • Chamomile is still extremely useful in the treatment of many women’s problems such as amenorrhoea, dysmenorrhoea, PMT and cystitis. Chamomile baths, rubs and tisanes can help avoid the build-up of fluids before a period and any dropsical complaints.
  • A major property of chamomile is digestive, and infusions are excellent in cases of indigestion, colic, loss of appetite, gout, and can stop summer diarrhea in children.
  • A simple tea taken before going to bed is not only digestive, but can also relax you for sleep and prevent nightmares. (See also abdominal pain, abscesses, amenorrhoea, anosmia, bedsores, broken veins and capillaries, catarrh, cold sores, colitis, cramp, cuts and wounds, ear problems, eye problems, fatigue, frostbite, halitosis, impetigo, menopause, and teething pains.)
In beauty
  • I have found chamomile most useful in treating skin complaints such as dermatitis, acne and eczema. Thanks to the properties of azulene, abscesses and boils can also be cured very quickly: steep some chamomile flowers in hot water and make into a poultice to apply directly (or use a steeped chamomile tea bag). You could also apply some oil neat. A steeped chamomile tea bag will help reduce facial puffiness suffered by some women premenstrually or during attacks of allergies such as hay fever. Chamomile oil can be mixed with others to make facial oils for many types of skin, and chamomile infusions make a good tonic cleanser for dry skin. Chamomile facial saunas are good too for many skin problems.
  • Chamomile is most famed for its use in hair preparations. It is used commercially in shampoos for fair hair, and it can lighten hair color. Use an infusion as a final rinse for fair hair. (See also dandruff, hair problems and psoriasis.)
In cookery
  • Chamomile is not much used in cooking, although it contains traces of calcium, the mineral which is so vital for healthy teeth and bones (and which accounts for the herb’s natural tranquilizing properties). To benefit from fresh or dried chamomile, though, drink it as a tea, or add tiny sprigs of leaves to salads, sauces, omelettes or bread doughs.
  • Chamomile can be used in potpourris and in tussie-mussies; it was listed by Tusser as a strewing herb, and as a clothes freshener in Edward Ill’s household accounts. The Elizabethans smoked chamomile to prevent insomnia before the advent of tobacco. A related plant ¬Anthemis tinctoria, dyer’s or ox-eye chamomile – yields an orange-brown dye.
  • A principal use of chamomile is, not unnaturally, in the garden. It was cultivated for herb seats along with thyme in Elizabethan times, and also for tough, fragrant lawns. Strong infusions of chamomile are said to be good as an activator for the compost heap, and also as a tonic spray for young plants. Many modern scientific gardeners weed chamomile out ruthlessly because they claim it takes so much goodness out of the ground: but old-fashioned gardeners and many herbal experts say it is the best of all ‘plant doctors’, reviving any sickly plant nearby. 


Mindy Yang
Mindy Yang

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