German Chamomile (Chamomilla recutita or Matricaria recutita)
A member of the Compositae family of plants, chamomile will grow virtually anywhere, but prefers light soils. Native to Europe and north-western Asia, it is a creeping perennial that grows up to 60cm in height with bright green feathery leaves and small white-petalled daisy-like flowers. Known as ‘maythen’ to the Anglo-Saxons, it was one of the nine sacred herbs given to the world by the god Woden. It is known as ‘the plants’ physician’ because it is said that ailing garden plants will recover when it is planted next to them.
In the first century AD Dioscorides recommended chamomile as “an excellent and very familiar remedy against an infinite number of infirmities that afflict the human body”. Today the flowers are still used widely in herbal medicine in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia and digestive problems. The flowers contain volatile oils including blue chamazulene and alpha-bisabolol), as well as flavonoids, coumarins and polysaccharides. These constituents have sedative, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, antiseptic and wound-healing actions.
Chamomile is safe to take during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding. It can be taken to alleviate morning sickness. A weak infusion may safely be given to babies and young children, or added to their baths. Its sedative and relaxing action, helps to dispel restlessness and induce sleep in anxious or nervous individuals or hyperactive children. After his adventures in Mr McGregor’s Garden, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit was feeling rather poorly, so “…his mother put him to bed and made some chamomile tea; and she gave a dose of it to Peter – one teaspoonful to be taken at bed-time’. It is an excellent remedy for teething babies and also for childhood fevers. Tension headaches and migraine often respond to this herb.
The blue volatile oil chamazulene relaxes the smooth muscle of the digestive tract and helps regulate peristalsis, while carminative elements reduce flatulence and irritation of the gut wall. In Germany, linen bags filled with chamomile flowers are heated and placed on the abdomen to relieve discomfort. Chamomile is of particular benefit where a digestive problem is of nervous origin, as well as for travel sickness, infant colic and diarrhoea. It may also help relieve inflammatory conditions such as peptic ulceration, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Likewise, by relaxing uterine muscle, chamomile may help in the treatment of period pains – Roman women took infusions of chamomile to relieve period pains, hence one of its Latin names Matricaria.
Chamomile also has an anti-allergenic action, and has a traditional use on the Continent in the treatment of asthma and hayfever, probably due to its action on the mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract; it is believed to reduce the reaction to allergens such as pollen or dust in sensitive individuals. The Dutch use the powdered flowers as a snuff for the relief of colds and hayfever. Chamomile has an antimicrobial action too, while the polysaccharides help stimulate the immune system, activating macrophages and B-lymphocytes.
Chamomile infusion or cream can be used topically to ease the inflammation and discomfort of haemorrhoids, mastitis, leg ulcers, eczema and other irritations of the skin and mucosa.
Chamomile has no known side-effects, although there are occasional cases of contact skin allergy.
German chamomile should not be confused with Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis), which, although also of value medicinally, does not contain chamazulene.
NB: The above information is for guidance only, and is not intended to take the place of diagnosis and treatment by a qualified practitioner. Some herbs may interact adversely with other medication, so make sure that your health professional is aware of everything you are taking.