Traditionally valued for its soothing qualities
In many European households, camomile is a standard item in the kitchen cupboard. French, German and Spanish children are often weaned on camomile tea to calm their childhood fears and help dispel nightmares.
Similar in shape to the daisy, camomile (Matricaria camomilla) is distinguishingable by its dome-shaped centre and downward-pointing petals. Camomile provides natural relief for babies suffering teething pain.
Soaking in a camomile bath makes a pleasant and soothing end to a busy day. The essential oil, present in the flowers, relaxes tired muscles and gives a restful night's sleep. After you camomile bath, going to bed with a camomile pillow or tying a camomile herb sachet to the bedpost will mean waking up refreshed and ready to start the new day. The Elizabethans grew camomile in their knot gardens. Its bright yellow and white flowers contributed to the colour, fragrance and texture of the intricate geometric patterns.
German camomile, Matricaria camomilla, is recognizable by its white petals and domed yellow centre. A native to most parts of Europe and western Asia, it favours sunny positions and grows easily in chalky or sandy soil. Of all the varying types of camomile, this wild variety is said to be the strongest and it produces the best quality of essential oil.
GATHERING, DRYING AND STORING CAMOMILE
Like all flowering herbs, camomile should be harvested when the flowers have just opened – this is usually between July and September, although the time varies from year to year. Some herbalists suggest picking the flowers in the early morning on a fine day, just after the dew has dried, while others believe midday is the best time because the essential oils are at their peak. The traditional herbalists always collected their herbs on, or around the time of, the full moon, and camomile, being a herb of the sun, was collected on a Sunday.
In England, herbalists use only the flowers, whereas in many European countries, such as France, Germany and Spain the whole plant is collected their herbs on, or around the time of the full moon, and camomile, being a herb of the sun, was collected on a Sunday.
In England, herbalists use only the flowers, whereas in many European countries, such as France, Germany, and Spain the whole plant is collected and dried. It is sometimes easier to cut the whole plants and dry them in bunches, later separating the flower heads. A coarse comb can be used to speed the process. An airing cupboard, attic, spare room or dry shed are ideal places for the drying process, as long as the temperature is below 40 C (100 F). in a damp climate, drying can take a surprisingly long time, so allow six to eight weeks, except in the hottest of summers, when the drying is quicker.
Once dry, pack the flower heads into airtight containers – preferably not metal or plastic as this may affect the taste – and store in a cool, dark place. It is important to keep camomile under airtight conditions, as it will reabsorb moisture very easily, and then mould will begin to develop.
The main constituent of camomile is a volatile oil called azulene. This oil is released when the flower heads are crushed, or boiling water is added to them. You can see this for yourself when making a cup of camomile tea; the thin film of blue-green oil floating on the surface of the tea after brewing is azulene. It is this which gives camomile its strong distinctive fragrance.
Azulene is a relaxant, especially of the nervous and digestive systems. It slows and calms the nerves, without the deadening effect of tranquillisers which simply block feelings of anxiety. It relaxes the smooth muscles which lines the whole of the digestive tract, allowing food to move through it in a natural rhythm. It is this reduction of spasms in the gut that accounts for the fact that camomile eases colic in babies, and wind, dyspepsia, constipation or diarrhoea in adults.
The volatile oil also has an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic action, and the bitter component of the herb stimulates production of digestive juices. Camomile is therefore a well-balanced, all-round remedy for the digestive system first relaxing, then healing and finally stimulating a healthy digestion.
BABIES AND CHILDREN
Camomile's strong and yet gentle action makes it an ideal remedy for babies and young children. The tea can be given in the feeding bottle, slightly sweetened with honey, or if the mother is still breast-feeding, she can take the tea herself and it will pass through to the baby in the milk. It is ideal for teething or irritable babies as it calms their nerves, soothes the pain and gives them, and the parents, a restful night. For older children, a nightly bath with camomile will settle them for bed. Better still, plant a camomile lawn and in summer allow the children to play on it while the baby sleeps nearby.
Camomile is ideal for over-sensitive children, and those with nervous stomachs, headaches, colic, nightmares and general timidity. In the language of flowers, camomile means 'patience in adversity' – perhaps for the mothers of such children.
A WARMING DRINK
For older people, camomile tea will help to ease constipation or stress-related bowel conditions, such as diverticulitis.
It has also been used in the treatment of migraine, irregular menstrual periods, peptic ulcers and colitis – all of which have been associated with stress.
It warms up the body and so benefits people who feel the cold badly in winter. It is also a good substitute for aspirin and other painkillers, which elderly people might find too harsh for their systems.
WOMEN AND CAMOMILE
For women, camomile provides a mild pain-killing action which helps ease menstrual cramps and the irritability of pre-menstrual syndrome. It is traditionally used for morning sickness in pregnancy, and for those odd aches and pains which can occur during the nine months. In bygone days, camomile was drunk during labour to both lessen the pain and give stamina to the mother. Menopausal women can benefit from the regular use of camomile tea, to ease tension and help with any sleeping problems that may occur.
Camomile can play an important role in the treatment of allergic reactions such as asthma and hay fever. It seems to act on the affected mucous membranes, reducing the body's reaction to the irritants and encouraging healing. It has an anti-histamine action and so reduces skin allergies and hay fever in particular. Inhalation of the essential oil of camomile flowers over a steam bath can be used to stop an asthma attack or ease it considerably.
A Herb of the Sun
Throughout the ages, camomile has been notable amongst herbs. It was revered by the Egyptians as a 'herb of the sun' as a treatment for fevers and chills. The Saxons chose it as one of their nine sacred herbs, and in medieval times camomile was strewn on the ground – its fragrant scent successfully marked the odours of a less hygiene-conscience age. The Elizabethans grew camomile in herb gardens and sowed it in perfumed lawns, and for the past 200 years its pretty white flowers and fern-like leaves have been decorating summer arbours.
In the early nineteenth century, farmers in Mitcham and Tooting, England grew fields of camomile and, at harvesting time in July and August, the whole village would participate, including the children.
Golden Hair Rinse
A camomile hair rinse will leave your light, fragrant and shiny. It has mild bleaching properties and gives blond hair golden sheen if used regularly over a period of time. To make the rinse, pour one litre (two pints) of boiling water on to a handful of camomile flowers. Allow to soak for half a minute and strain. Use the rinse, warm, after shampooing and rinsing your hair normally. There is no need to wash the camomile hair rinse off before drying.
In the camomile preparations given below, it is no coincidence that they all involve the use of heat. This converts the medicinal ingredients into their active form. When heating, however, make sure to cover the preparation in order to avoid the loss of active components in the steam.
Adding honey to camomile tea hides the bitter taste.
Sachets of dried camomile tea can be bought in most health-food shops.
For digestive and nervous irritability.
Use up to two teaspoons of dried flowers per cup. Place these in a teapot, add boiling water, cover and allow to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain into a cup and drink warm.
Suitable containers in which to brew the tea should have close-fitted lid – to prevent the loss of any volatile constituents - and be made of heat-resistant glass, glazed china or good quality stainless steel. Containers made of aluminium will tend to affect the taste of the tea.
For those who find the slightly bitter taste of camomile tea unacceptable, half a teaspoon of honey can be added. This may be necessary in the case of children. As with all herbal teas, no milk is needed.
The best time to take this tea is before meals. It should be sipped slowly to give time for stimulation of digestive juices and the regulation of muscle movement in the digestive tract ready for the ensuing meal.
Scald four handfuls of dried flowers in a bowl, cover and allow to infuse. Strain and add the liquid to your bath water. Soak in it for 20 minutes, making sure that your heart is above the water line. Upon emerging, do not dry your skin, but wrap in a warm cotton bathrobe and blanket for about an hour, so that sweat is induced.
Alternatively, make a small muslin drawstring bag, fill it with camomile flowers and tie it under the hot tap. As the hot water pours through the bag it will rinse the oil into the bath.
For aching eyes, rashes and skin irritations.
Soak one teaspoon (3g) of camomile flowers in 150 ml (5 fl oz) of boiling milk for half a minute. Strain the liquid off, and soak a piece of clean cloth or a folded tissue in it. Place it over closed eyelids or on the irritable area of skin.
Camomile Facial Steam
Place a handful of camomile flowers in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Place a towel over your head and the bowl and steam your face for 10 minutes. Splash it with cold water to close the pores and pat dry.
Melt solid vegetable fat (not lard) in a bowl over a pan of boiling water. Pack in as many fresh camomile flowers as possible, cover and leave on a very low heat for about four hours. Strain the ointment, while it is still hot into a jar before the fat sets. Allow to cool and cover tightly. Store in a refrigerator and apply after each bowel movement.
For rheumatism and neuralgia (intense pain running along a nerve).
Pack a jar full of fresh camomile flowers, and cover with oil (sunflower oil is suitable). Close tightly and leave in a warm place, such as an airing cupboard, for three weeks, shaking the jar periodically. Press out the oil through a sieve and massage into the affected areas daily.
This oil can be used as a body massage to relieve physical tiredness. It is also said to remove unwanted body hair, but the hair is probably bleached slightly to make it less visible.
For head colds and asthma.
Pour 500 ml (1 pint) of boiling water on to a teaspoon (5g) of flowers. Lean over the bowl with a towel over the head, or with cupped hands round the top of the bowl, and inhale the steam.