Chamomile, Herb of Healing
No compendium of herbs would be complete without the mention of chamomile. It has a long and colorful history, and has even been mentioned in nursery rhymes and fairy tales. While most people are familiar with this herb, they are not aware that there are two distinct varieties. Although they share common qualities, the difference ends there. German chamomile is an annual reaching a height of 2 to 3 feet. Roman chamomile is a perennial, grows smaller, and carries a stronger fragrance. Here, we will discuss chamomile - its history, medicinal and culinary uses, how it is cultivated, and how to harvest and store it.
History of Chamomile
For centuries, chamomile has been believed to have good healing powers. Ancient Egyptians dedicated chamomile to their gods because of its ability to cure agues, or malarial chills, which plagued ancient Egypt. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder recommended it for baths and poultices to relieve headache and disorders of the bladder, kidney and liver. What is little known about chamomile is that there are two different varieties. Both Roman and German chamomile is recognized as effective in Mexico and the American southwest, where it is given to small children for colic. Roman chamomile is attributed to alleving menstrual pain, and to help induce labor. Early colonists brought both varieties to America around the 16th century.
German chamomile is widely used in Europe for an anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic. It is widely used for gastric ulcers, gastritis, flatulence and peptic disorders. It is manufactured commercially in a slave or lotion to cure inflammations and skin problems. Often, it is used as an inhalant, to cure respiratory and bronchial inflammation.
Dried flowers are used in herb teas and even some herb beers. It is often drunk as a tea at night for its mild sedative effect. It is also taken internally as a stimulant, expectorant and tonic. Chamomile tea contains only 10 percent of the essential oil compounds and about 30 percent of the flavonoids. In Germany, it is mixed with 50% alcohol to increase its potency. The reaction of the alcohol and essential oils makes the tonic much more potent.
Culinary Uses of Chamomile
Although chamomile is more of a medicinal herb, it has its uses in cookery. Often, the fresh leaves are chopped and mixed into butter or sour cream to use as a topping for baked potatoes. The Spanish use the dried flowers to make sherry. It is of course used in many types of teas, both as a refresher and tonic. Cold chamomile tea mixed into fruit juices is especially good. Use fresh chamomile flowers as a garnish for green salads. It can be used to complement white sauces, sour cream and herbed butters. Chamomile is used to flavor the liqueur Benedictine, and it is used in various Sherries and vermouth.
How to Grow Chamomile
Roman chamomile is a low growing perennial that reaches a height of about 9 inches. German chamomile is an annual, and will reach a height of 2 to 3 feet. They are very similar in appearance. Leaves are alternate with a feather-like appearance, and are covered with white downy fuzz. It flowers in late spring through late summer, with daisy-like flowers that have a fresh, apple scent. Roman chamomile has a stronger scent than German.
Roman chamomile is best propagated through cuttings from a mother plant, but can be grown from seed if caution is used. The seed is very fine, and if not carefully planted. Sow seed in spring after all danger of frost. Cultivated Roman chamomile will produce double flowers, which is preferred from the type that grows in the wild and only produces single flowers. It likes a light, dry soil with a pH balance of 7.0. It prefers full sun, but will do well in partial shade.
The annual German chamomile can be seeded in both fall and spring. It is best to sow in the fall if possible because freezing and thawing makes it more viable. When once established, it will self seed if some flowers are left unharvested.
Harvesting and Storage
If using for a tea, harvest the flowers when the petals turn back on the disk. Rinse the flowers, carefully pat dry, and place on screen to thoroughly dry. Store the flowers in an air-tight container and keep in a dark place.
Best used as a tea, chamomile still has its place in the kitchen. To make a tea from chamomile, use a tablespoon of dried flowers, and steep in near-boiling water for five minutes. Add sugar, lemon or milk as desired and to taste. If using dried flowers, use a teaspoon.
Trey chamomile in your herb garden this spring. It not only has a wonderful scent, but makes a soothing tea.