Chamomile: German and Roman

The chamomile harvest is in full swing over here. This year I have the two varieties of the herb that are grown for medicinal use: German (Matricaria chamomilla) and Roman (Chamaemelum nobile).

The chamomilGerman Chamomile2e plant is used for making herb beers and for the treatment of toothaches, earache, neuralgia as well as swelling and skin conditions. In general the “inhalation of the vaporized essential oils derived from chamomile flowers is recommended to relieve anxiety, general depression”. However, if you wanted to pick a plant for a task, the extract of German chamomile contains a higher proportion anti-inflammatories (chamazulene) while Roman is considered better for soothing skin conditions.

I partly grow chamomile to harvest the flowers but the chamomile plant itself is like a tonic for the garden. It is pest and disease free and boosts the health of all crops that it grows alongside but improves the flavour of brassicas and onions. I have them interspersed with other plants to encourage insects and improve the overall health of the garden.

The German variety is native to Europe and western Asia and is an upright annual that can grow to 1 metre tall. The Roman variety is native to western Europe and north Africa. In theory it is a low-growing perennial at about 20cm in height. However, for me, the roman chamomile seeds have produced a plant that is almost as tall as the German chamomile. Both produce small, daisy-like white flowers with yellow centres. This yellow centre is flat on the German variety and raised in the Roman variety (see pictures below).

German Chamomile

German Chamomile

Roman Chamomile

Roman Chamomile

At the start I was picking the blossoms daily to get them just when they open for best flavour. However they need to be dried immediately after harvesting and for this they need to be laid out flat on a mesh screen in a warm place indoors, out of direct sunlight. This is causing a space issue as it takes several weeks for the flowers to dry completely. Lately I’ve started cheating with the microwave and oven to speed up the drying. Hopefully that won’t affect the power of these little flowers too much.

For more information on chamomile there is an interesting article published here: Srivastava JK, Shankar E, Gupta S. Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future. Mol Med Report. 2010;3:895–901.

Some bitterness

chamomile group shotLast year I wrote about Chamomile and there is no doubt that growing it was easy and very rewarding. I am, however, having a problem with the taste of the infusion. After picking the flowers, I dried them immediately in the hot-press and then transferred them to a jam jar for storage in a dark cupboard. I infuse around five flowers in hot water and leave for two to three minutes but the taste is incredibly bitter, almost to the point of being undrinkable. I’ve tried different brewing techniques: cooler water, less infusion time, fewer flowers but there is no getting away from it!

German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is said to be a little sharp but less so than Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). My herb-growing friends say that theirs has an edge but nothing that a little honey can’t solve. I know that I didn’t pick the blossoms on the day that they opened and maybe the drying or storage conditions weren’t ideal but the bitterness seems disproportional to these lapses.

I’ll try to do better this year but in the mean time, I will console myself with the knowledge that herbalists associate bitterness with joy and energy. It is said that some bitter foods in our diet can support healthy digestion by stimulating saliva and other enzymes, promoting bile production for the digestion of fat and regulating blood sugar levels.

Jim McDonald goes into some detail in a chapter called “Blessed Bitters” (download pdf) and concludes by saying:

We avoid bitterness because its taste seems uncomfortable; it challenges us. And yet when embraced, we find what it offers us is an abundance of medicine, which allows us to escape from a state of stagnation and release those things, both physiological and emotional, that hinder the blossoming of our wellness.”

I will continue to drink my challenging chamomile and await freedom from stagnation ;-)

chamomile up close

Chamomile Herbal Tea

Chamomile Single Flower

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. In fact, chamomile and potatoes are in competition for our “allotment success story” of 2013. 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 potatoes!

 

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.

 

Chamomile Group ShotMy 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!

If anyone knows of other plants that are as easy as chamomile (or potatoes), I’d love to hear. :-)