Chamomile is a favourite beverage of children’s story books. Characters from Peter Rabbit to fairy tale princes were forever being given a steaming mug of chamomile tea and honey to soothe their nerves before slipping off to dreamland. Whether you are a small bunny recovering from a terrible fright in Mr. McGregor’s vegetable patch, or more likely, the enraged gardener recovering from chasing rabbits away from your prize roses, chamomile is your go-to herb for tranquility. Not only does it calm nerves and ward off nightmares, it also settles your stomach after a large meal. So if you’ve ate too much rabbit stew, this is the tea for you!
Sweet dreams and settled stomachs aside, chamomile makes a cheerful addition to any herb, flower or vegetable garden with its mustard coloured centres, white daisy petals and fern-like foliage. If you have a sunny, sandy, corner that you are looking to fill you could do far worse than invite chamomile for tea.
Chamomile tea – The first recording of drinking chamomile tea dates back to 1550 BC! Dubbed by herbalists as “the mother of the gut” chamomile tea remedies all kinds of stomach ailments. The best tea variety is the annual German chamomile Matricaria recutita. Simply pour boiling water over a tablespoon of fresh flowers or one teaspoon of dried flowers and steep for five minutes. Add sugar, lemon or milk as desired. Tastes great iced as well.
Medicinal uses – Chamomile tea has antiseptic, anti-inflammatory properties as well as being a soothing sedative. An ancient remedy, it has been prescribed for nausea, indigestion, insomnia, the common cold, bronchitis, fever, liver ailments and gallbladder complaints. It makes an effective ointment for skin irritations and insect bites and its fragrance has been used in aromatherapy for centuries. An anti-stress prescription dating back to 1606 reads “To comfort the braine smell to camomill, eate sage, wash measurably, sleep reasonably, delight to heare melody and singing.” Wise words to live by four centuries later! Warning! Though noted for its mild and soothing qualities – as with all herbs – use in moderation. Consumed in great quantities chamomile can cause vomiting and vertigo. If you are allergic to ragweed pollen you may have allergies to chamomile as well.
Cosmetic uses – Chamomile tea makes a fabulous after-shampoo rinse for adding shine to light coloured hair and can also be dabbed onto skin with a cotton ball leaving your skin feeling soft and refreshed.
Here’s an easy recipe for Chamomile Shampoo
10 ml (2 tsp.) dried chamomile blossoms 60 ml or (1/4 cup) boiling water 60 ml or (1/4 cup) mild shampoo (organic baby shampoo is best) Pour boiling water over chamomile blossoms and steep for 30 minutes. Strain and blend into shampoo.
Seats and Lawns – Once it was discovered that sitting or stepping on chamomile released a delicious apple aroma and that the herb didn’t seem to mind being trampled upon in the least, it was quickly put to use to create seats and lawns. Roman or English chamomile are low growing perennials and best suited for these purposes. A small chamomile lawn complete with a chamomile seat would be perfect for the centre of a formal herb garden. Richters Herbs http://www.herbs.com (phone 905-640-6677) offers 120-count plug trays of both Roman chamomile Chamaemelum nobilis and English Chamomile Chamaemelum nobile ‘Treneague’. The plugs should be spaced 10 cm (four inches) apart in well prepared soil for best results. Choose a sunny location with light, slightly acidic soil. Keep traffic off for the first 12 weeks and to a minimum for the first year until it’s well established.
Chamomile seats – Back in medieval times ancient seats were simply made by shaping soil into a reasonably high mound and then planting the seat to chamomile. Today gardeners often use bricks, timber, or stones to frame the bottom of the seat and then fill it in with soil topped off with chamomile. Basically you are creating a raised bed that is meant to be sat upon plants and all. The idea of settling down in chair made of deliciously scented chamomile to enjoy a good book is heavenly – so long as you don’t mind grass stains on your bum.
Chamomile lawns – The same varieties used for seats lend themselves equally well to lawns. Probably the most famous chamomile lawn is the one at Buckingham Palace. Trampled by thousands of visitors every year it shows how durable these plants can be! If you’re interested in starting a chamomile lawn of your own it would be best to start small since the lawn requires hand weeding and sadly, most of us lack a royal budget for hired gardeners.
Companion Plant – The thing I love best about chamomile is how it nurses other plants back to health. Dubbed the “Plant’s Physician” if you plant chamomile near a drooping or sickly plant the sick plant almost always recovers. Chamomile has also repels insect attacks and improves overall crop yields in neighbouring plants You can even prevent damp off by sprinkling chamomile petals around your seedlings or by watering them with lukewarm chamomile tea. Here’s a useful infusion recipe for a damp off spray:
Damp Off Infusion Recipe
Bring 600 ml (2 ½ cups) of water to a boil and pour over a handful of chamomile leaves and flowers. Let stand four to six hours. Pour into spray bottle and mist seedlings once or twice a week using a fresh batch each time. This infusion may also be poured into your compost to accelerate decomposition.
Propagation – Late fall or even mid winter is a perfect time to plant German, Dyers or Roman chamomile. Is there anything more hopeful to do on a January afternoon than sow seeds in your garden? The freezing and thawing that naturally takes place over winter is exactly what the seeds require for successful germination. Choose a sunny site with moist well drained soil. Seeds require light to germinate so sprinkle on the surface and then cover with snow or tamp down firmly with a hoe to prevent the seed from blowing away on a winter wind, but don’t cover with soil. Now bid adieu until the spring and you’re done! English or double flowered chamomile can only be propagated through cuttings or division. All perennial chamomiles will benefit from being divided in their second or third year.
A tray of freshly plucked chamomile blossoms sprinkled with violets being loaded into a dehydrator.
Harvesting – Chamomile flowers should be harvested as soon as the petals pull back from the centre. This can be slow, tedious work, so choose a morning when you’re feeling very patient! Spread petals out on a screen and cover with a cheese cloth. Turn petals frequently for several days until completely dry or use a dehydrator. Store dried petals in a glass jar in a cool dark space.
Banish the Blues Tea
5 ml (1 tsp.) dried chamomile 5 ml (1 tsp.) dried mint 5 ml (1 tsp.) dried lavender honey or lemon optional Pour 500 ml (2 cups) of boiling water over herbs, steep for five minutes then strain.
Varieties of Interest
German chamomile Matricaria recutita – Annual. The most prolific producer of chamomile’s cheerful miniature daisy blooms; it is also the best tasting variety for tea and the most suitable for northern gardens. Warning: This carefree annual self seeds with reckless abandon and can be invasive. Height 60 cm (2 feet) Spread 10 cm (4 inches).
Bodegold Chamomile Matricaria recutita ‘Bodegold’ Annual. An improved German chamomile with bigger blooms and higher yields of essential oils. Available from Richters Herbs.
Roman chamomile Chamaemelum nobilis Its petals have a bitter flavour and are often used for medicinal purposes. Low growing habit makes it suitable for ground covers, pathways, lawns and chamomile seats but its blooms mean it will require frequent cutting. Zone 4 Height 10 cm (4 inches) Spread 45 cm (1.5 feet).
English chamomile Chamaemelum nobile ‘Treneague’ Perennial non flowering form of the Roman chamomile that is traditionally used for lawns sending up wafts of delightful apple scent when walked upon. Zone 5 – 8 Height 6 cm (2.3 inches) Spread 15 cm (6 inches).
Dyers chamomile Anthemis tinctoria Also known as yellow chamomile. Used chiefly as a dye plant. Harvest flowers in summer. An Alum mordant will yield a yellow dye while a copper mordant yields a dye in varying shades of olive green. Zone 4 Height and spread of 1 metre (3 feet).
Scentless chamomile Abtgenus arvensis Do not confuse any of the above varieties with this nasty one! A noxious weed found in most parts of Western Canada it can be easily confused with other varieties of chamomile, but where the eye deceives the nose knows. The giveaway is in its name. Unlike the apple fragrance of real chamomile, if you crush these leaves there will be no scent at all. Mature plants stand 15 – 100 cm (6 inches to 3 feet) tall.