Friday, July 20, 2007

CHAMOMILE: Chamomile's medicianal properties range from skin inflammations to lightening hair to treating digestive problems.

Native to Europe and the Mediterranean, the herb Chamaemelum nobile derives from the Greek words for "ground apple," a reference to the herb's distinctive aroma, and the Latin word for "noble" or "noted," which indicates its healing qualities. Chamaemelum nobile, often called Roman chamomile, is a low-growing perennial. Tea made from its flowers can be medicinal and bitter tasting. German chamomile, Matricaria recutita, is named for its traditional role as a gynecological herb and is the species most commonly used in the US. This tall, erect annual produces a sweeter, more flavorful tea than Roman chamomile. Both chamomiles belong to the Compositae family, along with daisies, dandelions, and marigolds.

A Soothing Tradition

Dioscorides, a Greek physician in the Roman army, prescribed chamomile for upset stomachs, jangled nerves, and kidney and liver diseases. During the spring, ancient Greek physicians pounded chamomile's leaves, flowers, and roots into lozenges which were prescribed for snake bites.

Over thirteen centuries before Dioscorides, the ancient Egyptians used chamomile in various ways. Its blossoms formed part of the floral garlands worn by statues of deities in King Tut's tomb. Powdered chamomile flowers were sprinkled into the abdominal cavity of the mummy of Rameses II to act as an insecticide. In ancient Assyria, Anthemis tinctoria, or "dyer's chamomile," was used for dyeing and was known as "the gift of the field."

The Anglo-Saxons, too, associated chamomile with the gods, "never...fatally fell man since we to him maythen (chamomile) for medicine mixed up." Maythen was one of the Nine Sacred Herbs given to the world by the god Woden, as listed in the Lacnunga, an ancient Anglo-Saxon manuscript.

Seventeenth and eighteenth century herbalists recommended that "to comfort the braine, smel to camomill." And, "all parts of this excellent plant are full of virtue." Seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote, "bathing with a decoction of chamomile taketh away weariness, easeth pains, comforteth the sinews when overstrained, and mollifieth all swellings." Nineteenth century Eclectic physicians prescribed it for digestive problems, malaria, typhus, and menstrual cramps.

For Beauty, Mind, and Mouth

Today, chamomile tea is commonly used as an antidote to stress. Research has revealed that its volatile oil compounds act as a mild sedative. Chamomile combats insomnia and prevents nightmares. It also helps relax the lining of the digestive tract and therefore helps overactive stomachs and bowels. Chamomile can be used externally to treat skin inflammations, sunburn, hemorrhoids, insect bites, and eczema. As a mouthwash, it helps alleviate mouth inflammations and toothaches.

As a beauty aid, chamomile has various uses. Rinsing the face weekly with chamomile tea helps keep the skin smooth, especially in bad weather. The herb can be used on babies, and even on dogs and cats. Cotton balls dipped in cool chamomile tea and placed on the eyes can relieve puffy bags under the eyes. To condition and lighten hair, boil chamomile flowers for 20 minutes and use the cooled tea as a hair rinse.

Chamomile proves quite versatile as a beverage. The French often drink a tisane of chamomile after dinner. Although chamomile tea is much more popular in Europe and Latin America than in North America, great amounts of it are imported here. Many ex-coffee drinkers find chamomile tea an excellent morning beverage. And on a hot afternoon, an iced tea made of chamomile is thoroughly refreshing.

A Gardener's Friend

Gardeners, too, have found many uses for chamomile, especially for lawns. Shakespeare's Falstaff noted of the herb that "the more it is trodden on the faster it grows." Thousands trample the famous chamomile lawn at Buckingham Palace, with no ill effect to the herb. Chamomile covers garden seats and walkways, allowing people to enjoy its pleasant, refreshing scent as they stroll through the grounds. Old time gardeners called chamomile the "plant doctor," placing it near sick plants and growing paths of it through their herb gardens. They believed chamomile was especially good for cabbages, and if planted a yard away, for onions as well. To treat herbs suffering from transplant shock, some gardeners sprinkle a light mulch of fresh or dried chamomile flowers at the base of the plant and water with hot water.

Grow Chamaemelum nobile in full sun or partial shade in moist, well-drained soil. This perennial evergreen with tiny daisy-like flowers, forms a soft mat three inches high when not blooming, but reaches twelve inches when in bloom. The stems of this creeping herb root themselves as they spread, thus making a good lawn substitute. It can be sown by seeds or division.

Matricaria recutita is a summer annual that stands 2 1/2 feet tall and has finely cut, fernlike foliage. It grows easily in full sun and requires little water once established.

Tasty Herb Tea

For jangled nerves or an upset stomach, a cup of chamomile tea just might do the trick. Snuggle up in bed with a mug of this flowery tisane and your favorite book. Or serve it with pound cake or not-too-sweet cookies for dessert.

1 tablespoon dried chamomile
1 teaspoon apple mint
1 teaspoon dried hibiscus flowers
1 teaspoon dried lemon grass

Combine herbs in a teapot and pour 2 cups of boiling water over them. Stir with a wooden spoon or chopstick. Place lid on pot and steep for 10 minutes. Strain and serve.

An Herbal Bath Pouch

What could be better on a cold winter's night than a hot bath scented with herbs?

1 tablespoon dried chamomile
1 tablespoon lavender leaves
1 tablespoon rosemary
1 tablespoon mint, thyme, sage, or basil
1 5 x 5 inch square of cheesecloth
1 rubber band
1 ribbon, long enough to hang the bag from the tap

Place the herbs in the center of the square of cheesecloth. Gather up the corners and secure the pouch with the rubber band. Tie the ribbon around the rubber band, creating a loop. Hang the herbal pouch by the loop from the tap, allowing the water to run through the pouch. When the tub is full, lengthen the loop and immerse the pouch in the bath water. Reuse the pouch by drying after use, and replacing the herbs as they lose their aroma.

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