Put the kettle on, make a cuppa and read on to see why Fiann Ó Nualláin loves this tipple
I am a big fan of chamomile tea. Not just for what it does for the gardener but what it does for the garden. So before we look at its human health benefits let’s just look at its horticultural benefits. Chamomile is a generic name for two different but similar species: Matricaria recutita (German chamomile) and Chamaemelum nobile (Roman chamomile). The German variety is annual and often self-seeding, the Roman is perennial and mat-forming. The German plant often features in wild meadow seed mixes; the Roman one is the sort that makes a chamomile lawn. They are used interchangeably in herbalism and in their organic gardening applications.
Chamomile/Chamaemelum means ground apple, and people often think that’s a reference to its fragrance but it was once a popular ground cover plant in the orchards of the ancient Romans. They believed it strengthened the growth, health and flavour of their fruits and in particular prevented scab and fungal infections forming on fruits.
Modern science would look to the plant’s evaporation of volatile oils as being beneficial to confusing several scent-detecting fruit pests but also as a boosting trigger to nearby plant immunity. Just as many rose growers plant garlic at the base of roses for the rose roots to absorb the sulphur compounds, so the Romans utilised the antibacterial nature of chamomile.
The chamomile plant is also rich in sulphur and makes a great foliar feed. A strong brew of chamomile also contains significant amounts of calcium and magnesium as well as trace elements vital to plant health.
I think of it as a general plant tonic. I do use it when fungal infection hit other plants in the garden; it is as effective as garlic spray in that matter. So antibacterial/antifungal is the plant that a fresh tea made of it can sterilise seed trays and plant pots and a cooled tea can be utilised to water in seedlings and kill off soil fungus and pathogens linked to poor germination and dampening-off diseases (where your seeds germinate but die off in seedling stage).
Drinking chamomile tea calms the human system — as both varieties of chamomile are packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory flavonoids as well as one known as apigenin, which is said to bind to the benzodiazepine receptors in the brain in the same way Xanax and Valium do but without any longterm side effects. Also a phytochemical in chamomile tea — chrysin — interacts with GABA receptors and exerts a calming effect upon the central nervous system.
Interestingly, smelling the tea or the plant direct also reduces anxiety and promotes a sense of being refreshed. It does this by its volatile oils impacting upon our olfactory connection to the limbic region of the brain and triggering a reduction in the levels of adrenocorticotropic hormones — those polypeptides produced in response to biological and physical stresses.
Chamomile tea has a tradition in herbalism to address digestive disorders and soothe stomach pains.
So good is it at soothing cramping that it is often recommended for both IBS and severe menstrual cramps. It helps raises glycine levels which help relieve the muscle cramps and it introduces some mildly sedative agents that take the edge off pain and discomfort.
And that’s one of most popular uses as a calming herb most often used as a relaxant for stress and as sleep aid tea. A cup an hour or so before you go to bed will help promote a deeper more restorative sleep. A cup at breakfast takes the edge off the commute without any drowsy missing of stops.
It doesn’t just look good it actually has some cosmeceutical value. The cooled tea is helpful to bathe eyes with sties or as compresses to puffy or tired eyes. Chamomile is also a renowned hair treatment for blond hair (to lighten the colour and stimulate the scalp for stronger growth).
Its antimicrobial effect is also good to act upon dandruff and its soothing principles can ease scalp psoriasis. Chamomile also excels at healing and beautifying skin.
The flowers contain not just essential oils but also a host of minerals including phosphorus, potassium, silicon, iron, manganese, calcium, copper and zinc. It also has traces of vitamins B1 and vitamin C — you can mash the petals with a little coconut oil and make a serum or make a petal infusion with a little hot water and sip the goodness or add to liquid soap and bathe with the goodness.
How to grow
Chamomile is easily started from seed – can be sown any time of the year but traditionally April-June. Broadcast onto moist well-drained seed compost and gently press into contact, it does not need a covering or dusting over. While it can germinate at lower temperatures the standard of 15-20C will see germination within two weeks. When it comes to planting out, it likes to grow in a light sandy soil with good drainage and full sun.
To dry chamomile for year-round use, just gather up a bunch, gently rinse away any surface dust, dry off on kitchen paper then tie into a bouquet bundle and hang upsidedown, this gets oil and phytochemicals from stems into foliage and flowers. I like to place mine inside an oversize paper bag with some ventilation holes and hang in the airing cupboard. It’s usually ready in two weeks, physically crumbly and visibly dry by that time. Over the drying period do check for mould. Discard and start again if any forms. Store in airtight containers.
Alternately you can oven-dry; firstly gently soak to wash away any particles, dry off by sitting on a paper towel then line on a baking tray with parchment and place in a preheated oven (200C), turn heat off, this is sufficient to dry, we are not really baking. Leave the oven door open and leave flowers inside to dry over an hour. Remove and while turning flowers/petals over reheat oven to 200C and repeat. Air-dried and oven-dried flowers will keep for 4-6 months in an airtight jar in a cool dry place.