Chamomile seed can be sown from early spring onwards. If you want to get started early you can sow in pots or trays indoors and transplant them out, or you can wait a bit and sow the seed directly into its final growing position. The seed germinates best in cool soils, so keep an eye on the increasingly unpredictable spring weather and move your trays to cooler locations if necessary.
The tiny seed requires light to germinate so make sure you sow it on the surface and gently press into the soil – don’t cover it. Water the seeds and keep moist until they germinate, which normally takes between 1-2 weeks.
The young seedlings grow quite slowly and have shallow roots that are easily pulled out along with weeds. So if you have a weedy bed then it will be easier to sow in pots or trays (using weed-free compost) and transplant out. They are very sensitive to having their roots exposed and can take a while to recover from being transplanted, so for best results sow into plug trays. The plants grow quite bushy so you can space them as wide as 30cm, but they will also do fine growing close together in tighter clumps.
Chamomile prefers full sunshine. It does best in sandy soils but can tolerate most soil types. Once established, it is usually requires very little attention. It is drought tolerant and we have never seen any issues with pests – small or large. If you sowed the seed early, you should start seeing plenty of flowers by the end of June.
The name Matricaria comes from the Latin name for womb or mother and was often seen particularly to meet the needs of both women and children. Women have often found chamomile helpful with painful periods or when these are absent (and other reasons for this are excluded). And chamomile is a favourite for teething children or easing a mild seasonal fever. Its been used for the ‘ague’ since the Egyptian times, making it one of the herbs with the longest records of continual use.
The essential oil that gives chamomile flowers their characteristic aroma and flavour contains sesquiterpenes and other constituents with a range of anti-inflammatory properties. On contact with hot steam or water, one of these, matricin, further generates a distinctive, blue volatile oil (chamazulene) that also has these properties. Chamomile also contains flavonoids including apigenin which is a particularly strong anti-inflammatory for the skin. These constituents have a particular effect on mucosal surfaces of the digestive system when swallowed, and on the airways when inhaled with steam. Chamomile has also demonstrated wound healing properties.
Constituents of German chamomile also have antispasmodic action. These ease visceral tension, particularly where there may be bloating, cramping and other digestive symptoms.
Chamomile also has confirmed activity in relieving anxiety. The ability of this plant to relieve psychological tension as well as underlying physiological symptoms of stress has made it one of the most effective remedies for the treatment of nervous upsets.
Harvest the flowers at the beginning of flowering when the essential oils are at their highest, and they are in their full glory. Either use the tried-and-tested 5-finger method, using your hand as a ‘comb’ to gently pop the flower-heads from their centipedal stems. You may have to hold the stems under your hand so you don’t disturb the roots. For larger quantities you can use a berry harvester.
These flowers can then be used fresh or laid out on a drying rack to dry. Like most herbs they are best dried at a low temperature with good air-flow, around 35C for 12 hours and then stored in an air-tight container.
Best used as a simple tea. Put seven fresh flower-heads or a tablespoon of the dried flowers in a cup of boiled water and infuse in a covered pot for 10-15 minutes to enjoy her soothing nurture. The heat will bring out the chamzulenes and contribute to the over-all soothing effects.
Inhaling steam containing chamomile soothes the discomfort caused by colds, sinusitis and earache. Use 2 tablespoons of loose chamomile (or 3-4 chamomile teabags) with boiling water in a bowl. Once the tea has steeped for a few minutes put a towel over your head and place over the bowl. Breathe deeply through your nose and mouth for 5-10 minutes.
For a tincture, macerate dried flowers 1:5@45% alcohol.
For an infused oil, macerate 1 part of the freshly-dried flowers in 4 parts olive oil for two weeks.
For an essential oil….grow a lot! 1Kg of the fresh flowers will yield just 1ml of the deep-blue essential oil.
One potential downside of the sesquiterpene lactones is that they can act as mild to potent allergens for susceptible individuals. Reported reactions have ranged from varying degrees of allergic contact dermatitis all the way up to severe anaphylaxis requiring emergency treatment. Because these compounds are so widely distributed among the Asteraceae, cross reactions can easily occur. A person might become sensitized to the sesquiterpene lactones in one plant (e.g., Ragweeds – Ambrosia spp.) and subsequently will have a reaction to a novel species (e.g., Chamomile or Yarrow) in the family. This is why the herbalist should be cautious when using Asteraceae herbs with people who have a tendency toward respiratory and contact allergies or problems with chronic eczema / atopic dermatitis.