Chamomile was one of the nine sacred herbs that the Anglo-Saxons believed had special powers. Known in English as Maythen, it was said to lift the spirits and have antifungal qualities. It is an anti-stress drink that eases sleep but it is also used for muscle aches, headaches, nausea and skin burns. It is said to relax muscles and for this reason is used to relieve spasms of the digestive tract, colitis and diverticulosis and interestingly, it claims to also stimulate the appetite. As with all herbs, caution is needed before ingesting – I have read that it should not be taken during pregnancy or while nursing and it may interact with certain drugs.
Chamomile herbal tea has been a long-standing bedtime drink in our house and this year we grew our own chamomile for the first time. I bought a tiny pot of unknown variety for €3 last June and less than 3 months later it is a thriving chamomile plant that is low maintenance and colourful. It spreads low to the ground and the area that it covers is weed-free which is more than can be said for the rest of the garden!
The word chamomile comes from Greek and means “ground apple” and that’s exactly what it smells like. Two types of chamomile are grown in herb gardens for medicinal use: Roman (Chamaemelum nobile) and German (Matricaria chamomilla). The German variety is native to Europe and western Asia is an upright annual that can grow to 1 metre tall. The Roman variety is native to western Europe and north Africa and is a low-growing perennial that is usually about 20cm in height. Both produce small, daisy-like white flowers with yellow centres, though in terms of taste German chamomile is reportedly sweeter. While the medicinal applications are similar, the German chamomile is contains a higher proportion of chamazulene, an active anti-inflammatory while Roman has a higher alcohol content and is considered better for skin conditions.
Both varieties are pest and disease free and gardeners often spread them among crops and herbs to boost overall health of the garden. There is a non-flowering variety of Roman chamomile and this can be used instead of grass for full lawns because it will thrive when lightly trodden. Buckingham Palace is said to have such a chamomile lawn that was planted for George V.
My plant had one bloom when I bought it in June and since then has continued to bloom heavily. The blossoms should be picked the day that they open for the best flavour (I haven’t done this) and should be dried immediately after harvesting. To dry, they are spread on a mesh screen in a warm place indoors, out of direct sunlight. When the flowers are completely dry, store in light-proof jars or in a dark cupboard.
To prepare the herbal infusion, add boiling water to a teasppon of the dried flowers. Cover the container while it infuses to avoid evaporation of volatile oils. Leave for 3-5 minutes and then enjoy.