How to care for camomile (and let it love you back)
After four or so years of drought, a bushfire summer and two years of beginning to restore the garden, I’m finally planting camomile again. Lots and lots of it. I drink the tea each night, partly as an aid to sleep, partly as an anti-inflammatory, but mostly because the flavour of the flowers infused in hot water is sweet and fragrant with a touch of sunlight, and totally unlike the taste of a mug of camomile tea made from any teabag I’ve so far encountered.
There are actually two types: the perennial Anthemis nobilis, or Roman camomile, and the annual Chamomilla recutita, or German camomile, though both have also been referred to as “English” or “Russian” chamomile. This is a lesson in “do not rely on the common names of herbs.”
Perennial camomile is the kind you want for a herbal lawn, though not if you live in a place where drought may mean dry ground (instead of the moisture camomile needs), or where neighbours’ cattle can tromp on it or the hens scratch it up. A camomile lawn will withstand a garden party or two, but not constant or very heavy traffic.
The non-flowering perennial camomile, A. nobilis var. Treneague, is the kind mostly used for herbal lawns, unless like me you want a lovely bright green spread and flowers to pick for tea. Annual camomile looks like a slightly more tufted variety of perennial camomile, and both its leaves and flowers are a bit more fragrant, though the degree of fragrance can vary between plants and also depends on how much sunlight they get — the more hours of sunlight sun, the better the fragrance, as long as they don’t get so hot they bake. The medicinal properties are said to be best if the plant is grown in only moderately fertile soil.
Camomile is a cold- to temperate-climate plant, but it can be grown in warmer areas in dappled shade, for example under deciduous fruit trees, though you’ll find annual camomile hardier in the heat than perennial. Once the soil reaches 45°C, your camomile will probably die, even if well watered. Frequent cool watering though will keep the soil temperature down, so with care you might just get your camomile through a heat wave. Do not, however, try growing the plant in a pot on a hot sunny patio: find a cool spot for it.
Both types grow from seed, though the non-flowering lawn variety of course doesn’t produce seed, except a rare gone-to-seed flower which may not reproduce the non-flowering runners you want. Perennial chamomile can be grown from runners as roots form wherever the stems touch the ground. Annual camomile is said to self-sow in perfect conditions, but our garden has never seemed to have those perfect conditions. When our camomile dies down it stays down.
Sow the seeds at any warm time of the year, ie now. With luck, fertile soil, good watering and sunlight, you will have flowers a few months later; the “few” will depend on weather and your climate.
Pick the flowers in the early morning just as they begin to open. For medicinal use, they are best dried quickly in a dryer or slow oven; when they are dried slowly in the shade, much of the active ingredients is lost. Even under the best circumstances, dried flowers are much lower in volatile oils than fresh flowers, losing about 70 per cent in two years. Chamomile flowers can also be frozen and retain their active ingredients well.
This, of course, is why I’m growing my own, even though camomile is fussy and I prefer plants that will live their lives happily with minimal interference or help. Camomile soothes without being depressing or mentally confusing. It has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic effects, and the oil is also a mild local anaesthetic. Camomile is also a mild sedative, and the tea is a good cure for “damping off” in seedlings, and even for gingivitis and other gum infections. Like all herbs, though, camomile tea can be used to excess. Never take more than four cups daily, and avoid while pregnant. Excess use can lead to vomiting and vertigo.
Camomile is also used in skin creams and shampoos, but as with any herb it is possible to develop an allergic reaction to it: test a little on the wrist before using it liberally. Camomile ointment can be used for cradle cap, nappy rash, haemorrhoids and cracked nipples. Having said that, get whatever condition you are trying to treat, including insomnia, diagnosed by a medical professional before resorting to camomile.
Annual camomile has a slightly more bitter taste than perennial camomile. Cover a tablespoon of fresh or dried flowers with two cups of boiling water. Leave for at least 10 minutes — it takes a while for the active ingredient to move from herb to tea. Reheat if necessary. I drink mine from a teapot insulated by a cosy. Drink before bedtime when you are stressed or if you have a cold or hay fever. Drizzle on seedlings at planting time to prevent damping off.
Camomile hair rinse
Cover three tablespoons of chopped flowers with half a cup of boiling vinegar. Leave to cool. Rub the lot into your hair and cover with a hot towel. Leave for two hours and rinse. This rinse is said to give your hair golden highlights, but when I’ve tried it my hair has remained firmly unhighlighted.
Nor am I sure if my bedtime tea really does help me sleep. It’s part of a soothing bedtime ritual though — and when home-grown, tastes of sunlight.