The Bittersweet medicine of Chamomile
Common Name: Chamomile, Manzanilla, Pineapple Weed
Botanical Name: Matricaria recutita (as well as M. discoidea)
Botanical Family: Asteraceae
Taste: Aromatic, sweet, bitter
Vital Actions: relaxant nervine, relaxant diaphoretic, aromatic bitter/carminative, vulnerary,
Specific Indications: Irritability, tension, heat, hypersensitivity to pain
Energetics: sl. Cool, dry
Chamomile means “earth apple” which is easy to understand when we accidentally trample the flowers and underfoot and suddenly smell the welcome fragrance of apples rising from the earth. In the same way, Spanish speaking peoples often use the name Manzanilla, literally meaning “little apple”. Even for those largely unfamiliar with herbs, the distinctive sweet scent of Chamomile is often both familiar and comforting. This plant is many people’s first and perhaps only introduction to herbalism, often from a cup of honey-sweetened and belly-calming tea from their grandmother.
Many children enjoy eating the buds or just opened flowers, savoring the sweet aromatic taste of the plant, and rarely seeming to mind the slightly bitter aftertaste. Some patches of Chamomile, depending on phase of flowering and availability of moisture, are much more bitter than others but the fragrant sweetness persists even in the most bitter batches. Far from irrelevant, these signature sensory characteristics of Chamomile that make the plant memorable in our minds are also the primary keys to understanding how to work with Matricaria as a medicine.
As with almost any herb, the taste and scent of Matricaria tells us a great deal about its properties, allowing us to use our senses to listen to the plant and understand its essence as a medicine. That blissfully apple-like scent that children so love to breathe in from the flowers tends to bring relaxed smiles to their faces and anyone who’s ever drank a cup of the tea can testify to the relaxing, tension alleviating effects of the plant. That aromatic component, stemming from the plant’s high volatile oil content, is predictably nervine, meaning that it has a discernible effect on the nervous system. In this case, a specific relaxing, calming effect. Additionally, that same volatile oil content is responsible for Chamomile’s actions as a carminative, relieving digestive stagnation in the form of gas, gut cramping and mild constipation. A traditional remedy by several North American indigenous tribes for the uterine cramps of girls just beginning their menstrual cycles, Chamomile is a mild relaxant for the smooth muscles of the gut, uterus, bladder and respiratory tract with a specific affinity for the gut.
Matricaria is not just aromatic, even in the sweetest Chamomile flowers we find a notably bitter aftertaste. Rather than ruining the flavor of an otherwise tasty herb, that bitter element enhances and expands the medicinal properties of the plant. The bitter flavor tells us that it has a distinct effect on the digestive system, even beyond the aromatic/carminative qualities. The bitterness increases the secretion of digestive juices and enzymes in the gut, thereby improving digestion wherever there is a lack of secretions, which is a common cause of heartburn and many cases of general gut discomfort. This combined with its obvious nervine properties, Matricaria excels at treating what is commonly known as a “nervous stomach”, which generally implies digestive upset concurrent with anxiety and nervous tension.
Volatile oils and bitter principles together make for a powerful ability to reduce inflammation and promote healing, especially in the gut. I rarely create a formula for those with leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome or even Crohn’s disease that doesn’t contain some proportion of Chamomile. Even as a simple, this pleasant tasting plant can very effectively reduce gut inflammation, pain and cramping while promoting healing of the mucosa and improving overall digestion. And of course, reducing any anxiety that may be aggravating or triggering the gut issues in the first place.
Just as it soothes and heals internally, Matricaria is also a first-rate external application for almost any case of inflammation, irritation, swelling and even potential infection. It finds its way into many of my compress formulas for eczema, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis and other common inflammatory skin conditions. Steams, baths and infused oil are other effective ways of utilizing the calming, decongestive and healing properties of the herb. It’s also the first plant I think of in addressing the discomfort, irritability, insomnia, belly upset and fever of teething in small children.
Chamomile is one of my favorite remedies for all sorts of eye inflammations and infections. It can be used as a warm compress or saline eye wash to reduce inflammation, possible infection and pain in the treatment of styes, conjunctivitis, pink eye and similar maladies. It teams up especially well with any Rosa spp. petals where there is a great deal of redness, irritation and swelling in the eye and the surrounding area. Just be sure to strain all those tiny (and potentially irritating) bits of Chamomile flower before using as an eye wash.
Chamomile has a well deserved reputation as an archetypal remedy for children (or as Matthew Wood says “children of any age”), especially where there is fussiness, restlessness, frequent digestive upset and a tendency to react strongly to any irritant or discomfort. If one were to read the first dozen monograph on Matricaria they came across, the word “soothing” would be likely to show up in nearly every one. While now a somewhat cliched representation of this common herb, it is nonetheless very accurate.
There’s a tendency by some of us to be less interested in the classic gentle herbs whose effects seem obvious, mild and less than profound. And yet, Chamomile has retained its popularity and reputation over the years for a very a specific reason. It works. It’s an effective, widely applicable, safe medicine well-loved by countless generations of mothers, herbalists and more recently, even medical doctors. This small but fragrant apple of the earth remains an invaluable medicine for all of us. Through both sweet and the bitter tastes, Chamomile provides us with a simple yet essential remedy.
Considerations: People with sensitivities to plants in the Aster family may have similar problems with Matricaria. Also note that Pineapple Weed (M. discoidea) often has a stronger bitter component and overall action than the common garden grown M. recutita.