German chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla, is a well-known herb whose medicinal qualities have been put to good use for many centuries. Small children learn about chamomile’s calming effects in Beatrix Potter’s classic book The Tale of Peter Rabbit, where Peter Rabbit’s mother puts him to bed with chamomile tea after his harrowing escape from eating vegetables in Mr. McGregor’s garden. “Peter was not very well during the evening. His mother put him to bed, and made some chamomile tea: One table-spoonful to be taken at bedtime” (Potter, 1902). Still today, some people sip on chamomile tea to reduce anxiety, ease digestion, and to help them sleep. In Europe, chamomile is considered a cure-all and in Germany it is referred to as alles zu traut, meaning that it is capable of anything (Sah, 2022).
Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used chamomile as a medicine. Greek physicians Hippocrates and Dioscorides, and Roman physician Galen wrote about the medicinal uses of the herb. They used it to treat digestive issues, fever, and pain. It was also used to treat skin conditions. The root word of the plant’s botanical name, “matricaria”, is from the word “matrix,” which in Latin means “womb.” It was given this name because chamomile was used to treat gynecological problems and sleep disorders related to premenstrual syndrome.
During the Middle Ages, chamomile was a common remedy for sleeplessness, anxiety, and digestive problems. It was believed to have anti-inflammatory properties so was also used to heal wounds and reduce swelling. Chamomile, because of its pleasant scent, was also used as a strewing herb in medieval homes. The name chamomile comes from the Greek word meaning “earth apple”, referring to the apple scent of the plant. By the 16th and 17th centuries it was used mostly to treat fevers (Engels, 2018).
In the United States, chamomile was first cultivated by German farmers and was used by Eclectic physicians to treat children and pregnant women (Engels, 2018). The USDA gave chamomile Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status as a food additive in 2000 and reported that it could be used in over-the-counter dietary supplements. Although there have not been a large number of studies on the effects of chamomile on the central nervous system, a recent clinical trial confirmed that chamomile reduced symptoms of anxiety in people with anxiety disorders (Mount Sinai, n.d.), giving credence to the historic use of the herb.
More than 120 chemical components have been identified in chamomile flowers, mostly in the essential oil. It’s interesting to note that the plant is sometimes called “blue chamomile” because of the blue color of its essential oil. The color is due to the azulene that is released during distillation (Mountain Rose, n.d.). Chamomile flowers contain pollen, so people who are sensitive to ragweed and chrysanthemum or other members of the Asteraceae family should be cautious about drinking chamomile tea (Kowalchik, 1998).
German chamomile is an easy plant to grow. Seeds can be planted directly into the soil in the spring or fall. It is an annual, but it reseeds itself readily. It is a drought tolerant plant and if the soil is fertile, it will sport its flowers on thicker stalks. The plant can grow 2-3 feet tall and likes full sun or partial shade. The flowers should be harvested often or the plant cut back to encourage new growth and new flowers. Flowers are fragrant and can be used fresh or dried. The leaves of the plant are also edible. Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is almost identical to German chamomile, even though it is in a different species (Ianotti, 2022). However, the Roman variety is a perennial and is low-growing. Some say Roman chamomile is more fragrant.
German chamomile is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for April. For more information about the herb, please visit The Society’s Herb of the Month webpage.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. The information in this presentation is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Photo Credits: 1) Mrs. Rabbit putting Peter to bed with a cup of chamomile tea (Public Domain); 2) Staff of Asclepius (Tmelu); 3) A cup of chamomile tea (courtesy of the author); 4) Vial of chamomile essential oil (Public Domain); 5) Chamomile flowers (Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)
Engels, Gayle and Josef Brinckmann. 2018. Chamomile Matricaria chamomilla (syn. M. recutita, Chamomilla recututa) Family: Asteraceae. HerbalGram. Issue 108. Accessed 4/5/23. Available from https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/108/table-of-contents/hg108-herbpro-chamomile/
Iannotti, Marie. 2022. How to grow and care for chamomile. Accessed 4/10/23. Available from https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-grow-chamomile-1402627
Kowalchik, Claire & William H. Hylton, eds. 1998. Rodale’s illustrated encyclopedia of herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.
Mountain Rose Herbs. n.d. Chamomile, blue essential oil. Accessed 4/28/2023. Available from https://mountainroseherbs.com/blue-chamomile-essential-oil
Mount Sinai. n.d. German chamomile. Accessed 4/10/23. Available from https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/herb/german-chamomile
Potter, Beatrix. 1902. The tale of Peter Rabbit. London: Frederick Warne, & Co. Accessed 4/18/22. Available from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14838/14838-h/14838-h.htm
Sah, Amit et al. 2022. A comprehensive study of therapeutic applications of chamomile. Accessed 4/6/23. Available from https://www.mdpi.com/1424-8247/15/10/1284
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. Maryann is also a certified Native Landscape Specialist. She lectures on herbs and plants and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.