Mrs. Rabbit put Peter to bed, made some chamomile tea, and gave a dose of it to her unruly son. “One table-spoonful to be taken at bed time,” Beatrix Potter intoned in The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Just what was this elixir that calmed our favorite woodland renegade?
If you pick up a half-dozen herb books to look up chamomile, you are likely to find a bewilderment of names. There’s Roman (or English) chamomile, a perennial, and German (or Hungarian) chamomile, an annual. The German species might be listed as Matricaria chamomilla, Chamomilla recutita, or Matricaria recutita. These are all the same plant! Roman chamomile is referred to in some sources as Anthemis nobilis, in others as Chamaemelum nobile. The currently accepted nomenclature is Matricaria recutita for the German, and Chamaemelum nobile for the Roman. But what a confusion for such a lowly European weed!
The word chamomile (sometimes spelled camomile, and generally pronounced with a long i) is derived from Greek—chamos (ground) and melos (apple), referring to the fact that the plant grows low to the ground, and the fresh blooms have a pleasing apple scent. Even at this level of naming, all is not clear. Roman chamomile is indeed low growing, and is used for clipped lawns in England. But German chamomile grows to a relatively stately 21/2 feet.
Telling Them Apart
German chamomile is a sweet-scented, branching plant whose tiny leaves are twice-divided into thin linear segments. The flowers, up to one inch across, have a hollow, cone-shaped receptacle, with tiny yellow disk flowers covering the cone. The cone is surrounded by 10 to 20 white, down-curving ray flowers, giving it the appearance of a miniature daisy. German chamomile is native to Europe and Western Asia, where it is weedy; it has escaped from cultivation in the United States as well.
Roman chamomile, on the other hand, has a spreading habit and grows only about a foot high. Leaves are twice or thrice divided into linear segments, which are flatter and thicker than those of German chamomile. Its flowers are also up to an inch across, but its disk is a broader conical shape, and the receptacle is solid. Roman chamomile also has white ray flowers, though a number of cultivated varieties have none at all and give the appearance of little yellow buttons. There are also double-flowered cultivars (well-known by the sixteenth century), and a flowerless one called ‘Treneague’, named for the English estate on which it was developed. Roman chamomile is native to Western Europe northward to Northern Ireland.
If you have a pile of dried chamomile flowers, you can distinguish the Roman from the German by splitting the flower receptacle open down the middle. If the receptacle is solid, it is Roman; if hollow, it is German. You should test five or ten flowers to be sure, because occasionally a German chamomile flower will be solid in the interior. Roman chamomile has slightly hairy stems, while those of the German are smooth. In the live plant, the flowers of Roman chamomile sit singly atop the stem, while those of the German are on divided stems in a comb-like arrangement (known as a corymb).
• German chamomile grows from seeds sown directly in their garden location. The seeds are very tiny—almost dust like—so the seed bed should be well-prepared. They can be scattered on the soil’s surface, then gently tamped down with the flat side of a hoe. Plant early in the spring, about the same time you would plant peas. The young seedlings will withstand a mild frost. The seeds generally germinate in a week to ten days. Germination begins at temperatures of about 45° F. The plants grow slowly at first, and need to be kept well weeded. After four to five weeks, a growth spurt occurs, resulting in a rosette of leaves. Young seedlings, about 1 or 2 inches tall, are easily transplanted, but older ones do not survive this process.
If you plant around the first of June in the North, expect flowering in mid to late July or early August. Here in the southern Ozarks, self-sown plants complete their life cycle by mid-June. Blooms develop continuously, and once flowering commences, harvesting is possible every ten days to two weeks. When I was at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker community back in the late seventies, we planted double rows of German chamomile 10 inches apart and harvested the flowers with a blueberry rake. Commercial growers in northern Europe get two to three cuttings of flowers during a season.
• Roman chamomile can be started from seeds or cuttings, or by root division. Seedlings should have a 6- to 12-inch spacing. It likes full sun and a slightly acid-to-neutral garden soil with good drainage. A rich soil will produce lush leaf growth but few flowers. It is an excellent, but slow-growing, ground cover for cooler areas. Roman chamomile does not tolerate hot, dry weather; I’ve had a very difficult time trying to grow it in the Ozarks. Roman chamomile is a perennial, growing from the same root year after year. German chamomile is an annual, but don’t expect it to grow in the garden for just one year! It self-sows freely and you can bet if you plant it one time, it will spring up in the garden from then on. The second year I grew German chamomile, I found plants springing up along the driveway several hundred yards away! In Boulder, Colorado, you can find the plant naturalized along roadsides and in the cracks of sidewalks, where seeds escaped from Celestial Seasonings tea company.
Chamomile for your Health
In Europe, chamomile is highly esteemed as a medicinal herb. Matricaria recutita is included in the pharmacopoeias of 26 countries. Writing on the plant in the Australian journal Focus on Herbs, Slovakian chamomile expert Ivan Salamon quoted a common folk saying of his country: “An individual should always bow before the curative powers of the chamomile plant.” And “As a popular remedy, it may be thought of as the European counterpart of ginseng,” Dr. Varro Tyler wrote in The New Honest Herbal. Dr. Tyler tells us that the Germans describe it as alles zutraut—“capable of anything”.
Are these statements just overenthusiasm, or is there meaning behind the folklore? Indeed, German chamomile, and to a lesser extent, Roman chamomile, is among the best-researched medicinal herbs now used in Europe. There it is used in a wide variety of ways and in dozens of products: compresses, rinses, or gargles are used externally for the treatment of inflammations and irritations of the skin, mouth, gums, and respiratory tract, and for hemorrhoids. A chamomile bath—a pound of flowers to 20 gallons of water—is also used. (Alternatively, alcohol extracts of the flowers are available in Europe—a much more convenient way to take a chamomile bath!)
Internally, a tea made from 2 to 3 grams of the herb to a cup of water is used to relieve spasms and inflammations of the intestinal tract, as well as for peptic ulcers. (Remember that there are about 28 grams in an ounce, so this is a very mild tea.) A mild tea is also used as a sleeping aid, particularly for children. These medicinal uses, cited in a monograph developed by the European Scientific Cooperative for Phytomedicine, are backed by intensive research of recent years as well as many centuries of common use.
Over the last decade, the popular press and even medical literature in the United States have reported that drinking chamomile tea may cause severe allergic reactions. The basis for this, according to Dr. Tyler, is 50 allergic reactions resulting from “chamomiles” reported between 1887 and 1982. Of these, only five were attributed to German chamomile. I think this says more about its safety than it does any potential harm; nonetheless, persons who experience allergic reactions to ragweed or other members of the aster family are warned that they should use chamomile with caution.
Next time you sip a cup of sweet, delicate, apple-flavored chamomile tea at bedtime, think of its interesting history and all the upset stomachs and other minor irritations it has soothed over the centuries. And don’t feel even a little bit sorry for Peter Rabbit, though Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail got blackberries and milk for supper instead.
Steven Foster is a botanical researcher, photographer, and writer in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. His book credits are legion, including: Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West with coauthor Yue Chongxi (1992) and Echinacea: Nature’s Immune Enhancer (1991), both published by Healing Arts Press in Rochester, Vermont.