By Audrey Stallsmith
Certainly a’ flesh is but as flowers of the field; but if a bed of camomile hath value in medicine, of a surety the use of Andrew Fairservice to your honour is nothing less evident. . .
Of chamomile, Culpeper grumbles, “the Egyptians dedicated it to the Sun, because it cured agues, and they were like enough to do it, for they were the arrantest apes in their religion that I ever read of.” An ague was a fever accompanied by chills, so perhaps the testy herbalist had a hard time seeing any relationship to the sun.
But, no doubt, the Egyptians thought the yellow-centered flowers with their white ‘rays” similar to the heavenly body. The Germanic peoples also saw a connection, dedicating the herb to their own god of illumination—Balder. And, with its soothing and curative effects, chamomile has frequently allowed the afflicted to see light at the end of their tunnels!
As Michael Castleman points out in Healing Herbs, even Peter Rabbit’s mother dosed him with chamomile after his run-in with Mr. McGregor. “Peter’s mother was a wise herbalist,” Castleman notes, since the plant could deal with so many possible results of that unfortunate encounter, including indigestion, jangled nerves, grazed skin, or an incipient ulcer.
“Unfortunately, few who sip chamomile tea know what a healer they hold in their paws. Sorry—hands.” He adds that Germans call the herb alles zutraut (“capable of anything”)
Or perhaps I should say herbs, in the plural, since there are several different kinds of chamomile. The two most well know are anthemis nobilis, Roman chamomile, and matricaria recutita, German chamomile. The former is a cultivated perennial that doesn’t grow taller than a twelve inches, while the latter is a wild annual, which can reach 2 feet.
And, though the flowers of the wild type are single with a hollow yellow disk, the larger blooms of Roman chamomile can be double and boast a solid center. Both varieties, however, have similar medicinal effects.
Chamomile derives from the Greek kamai (“on the ground”) and melon (“an apple”), in reference to the plant’s apple-like scent. And the “h” is optional, with some writers using it and some not. Chamomile or camomile has also been known as Mayweed, ground apple, earth apple, or manzanilla.
In addition to calming the nerves, and curing indigestion, it can also relieve headaches, fevers, cramps, and both diarrhea and constipation. Being antiseptic and fungicidal as well as anti-inflammatory, the herb has many external applications as well—with partially cooled tea bags of it often applied to swellings or irritated skin. Fortunately, chamomile is easy to find, being one of the few herbal teas available in almost every supermarket.
Its similar popularity in "olden" times can be deduced from a humorous incident in Dickens Pickwick Papers, when Mr. Weller complains, "The breath wos scarcely out o' your poor mother-in-law's body, ven vun old 'ooman sends me a pot o' jam, and another a pot o' jelly, and another brews a blessed large jug o' camomile-tea, vich she brings in vith her own hands."
It is also possible that some children may have been dosed with the herb a little too much, since in Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland, the young heroine speculates "Maybe it's always pepper that makes people hot- tempered. . .and vinegar that makes them sour--and camomile that makes them bitter. . ." I've always found the tea's flavor quite pleasant!
In The Green Pharmacy, James Duke reports that chamomile contains seven different antihistaminic chemicals. So it could relieve allergy symptoms—including hives--as long as you are not allergic to the herb itself!
As for the treatment of ulcers, Duke quotes a Rudolph Weiss, M. D. Due to the fact that chamomile can soothe inflammation, kill germs, and prevent indigestion and spasms, “there can be,” that doctor asserts “no other remedy so tailor-made, including all synthetic products.”
It might also be tailor-made for those suffering from liver problems. As John Heinerman reports in his Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs, German chamomile tea is one of “only a few herbs in the plant kingdom. . .capable of regeneration or producing brand new liver tissue.”
Castleman advises that the herb also “stimulates the immune system’s infection-fighting white bloods cells. . .Drink some when you have a cold or the flu. . .it just might help.”
For such a gentle herb, Roman chamomile is oddly persistent, often growing best where is it walked on. As a result this glutton for punishment, which stands in the Language of Flowers for “energy in adversity,” was planted in paths, lawns, and on herb seats. The plant’s pleasant aroma also made it popular for strewing, baths, and potpourri. It is still frequently used as a rinse to bring out the highlights in blonde hair.
Not only is the herb a gentle tonic for people, it is also supposed to restore the health of any ailing plants growing close to it. And the tea, sprayed on flats of young seedlings, will eliminate mold and help prevent damping-off disease. For comfort and cosseting, chamomile is almost as good as a mother!
Plant plate is from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.