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Chamomile is a medicinal herb of the Asteraceae family with many uses. There are two kinds of chamomile and their names can be confusing.
Roman chamomile, occasionally referred to as English chamomile for the chamomile lawns planted in Elizabethan England, is Chamaemelum nobile but is also (inaccurately) referred to as Anthemis nobilis. This mat-forming perennial has a spreading habit and the brilliant, green, finely-cut leaves grow about four inches high. Its flowers, with daisy-like, yellow cones surrounded by white rays, are about 1 inch across and grow singly atop ten inch stems. There is also a double, cream-colored chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile ‘Flore Pleno’. A flowerless variety, ‘Treneague’, is usually grown as a lawn or ground cover.
Roman chamomile can be started from seeds, cuttings or by root division. It does best in a cool climate and does not tolerate hot, dry weather. It prefers full sun but will also grow with some shade. A rich soil will produce lush leaf growth but no flowers. Roman chamomile self-sows profusely and needs to be contained by pruning.
To grow a chamomile lawn, you will need a spot where the ground rarely freezes. A sunny location is best but dappled shade is also acceptable. First clear the area of any weeds. If using Chamaemelum nobile ‘Treneague’, plant young plants about 4 inches - 8 inches apart. Keep the soil moist and do not walk on the plot for at least 10 weeks. Roman chamomile can also be started from seed with slower results. The lawn will require minimal care, which is one of its attractions. Occasional weeding may be necessary and the plot can be mowed or sheared. The lawn will be tough and will also release a pleasant, sweet scent when tread upon.
German chamomile is also of the Asteraceae family but of a separate genus. Called Matricaria recutita, this species is an annual and is the chamomile that is typically used to make chamomile tea. The plant can be distinguished from Roman chamomile by having multiple flowers atop divided stems (a corymb). Under closer examination, they can also be told apart by the flower receptacle which is solid in the Roman form and hollow in the German form. The daisy-like flower heads are rather similar in the two chamomiles.
German chamomile seeds can be sown directly in the soil in early spring. Do not bury them as they need light to germinate. Young seedlings (1 or 2 inches) may be transplanted, but older ones cannot. Grow in full sun, in well-drained but moist soil. The plants will flower as early as June in warmer climates and will continue to flower periodically until fall.
While either chamomile can also be grown indoors, German chamomile is favored to provide flowers for tea and other culinary uses year-round. Sow seeds on the surface of the soil in small seed starters or in a large pot (at least 12 inches wide) with good drainage. Place the pots in a warm location, about 70°F, and the seeds will germinate in about two weeks. Chamomile can be started at any time of the year. Keep the plants in a south-facing window or a location that get at least 4 hours of sun a day. The soil should be kept moist but not too wet. After two or three months the flowers will be ready to harvest.
Chamomile has been used as a medicinal herb since early times. Both Chamaemelum nobile and Matricaria recutita are used identically for these purposes. Chamomile has been recommended for many human ailments such as hay fever, headaches, inflammation, muscle spasms, menstrual disorders, insomnia, ulcers, wounds, gastrointestinal disorders, rheumatic pain and hemorrhoids. Whether or not it is effective is a matter of controversy. (For a detailed discussion of this topic see the National Institutes of Health publication linked in the column on the right.)
The most popular use of chamomile these days is as a tonic or as a sedative. Chamomile tea can be made by mixing 1 tsp of dried flowers in 8 ounces of not-quite boiling water and allowing them to steep for 5 – 10 minutes. The tea can then be strained or an infuser can be used to hold the herb. Honey, lemon or mint can be added if you wish. Chamomile is also used in a soothing body lotion (not to be confused with calamine lotion). The ground flowers are mixed with oils (e.g. bees wax or coconut oil).
People allergic to ragweed and other plants in the aster family should not use chamomile.