Those who would grow the legendary chamomile need to know a few things about this plant. Although common Twenty-First Century herbal lore has given chamomile a sleepy, soothing reputation, in the field this plant is truly the most ferocious of herbs. It is the Cleric of the herbal dungeon crawling team, being both mighty in combat and most beneficial to the other members of its party.
Mosby’s Handbook of Herbs & Natural Supplements (2001 edition) informs us that English chamomile “is a known abortifacient and should not be used during pregnancy and lactation, but it may be given to children.” (In technical terms, a Class 2b herb.) Somewhat more theoretically, Wang’s famous 1997 study indicated that “apigenin, a flavonoid present in chamomile, exerted a significant effect on DNA synthesis in estrogen-dependent and estrogen-independent human breast cancer cells.... Further studies are necessary to clarify the possible cancer preventative effects of these chemical components.”1
It's important to remember when perusing your herbal and New Age-type websites and journals, which generally fail to tell you anything that might be dangerous about the treatments they recommend, that there are at least four different plants commonly known as chamomile. The species most herbalists will recommend to you as safe for treating morning sickness is German chamomile, Matricaria chamomillia. However, the other common varieties, English and Roman chamomile, are not at all safe for consumption during pregnancy. They are abortifacients, and you probably don't want that. There is undoubtedly a reason why none of these people warn you about this when discussing this “adorable, therapeutic, and easy to grow”2 herb, but I could not guess what that reason might be.
On the gripping claw, chamomile has an age-old reputation, fairly well confirmed by modern research, for effective treatment of indigestion, colitis, IBS, Crohn’s disease, insomnia, anxiety, and spasms. It has antiinflammatory properties and can be used topically to promote wound healing. Also, it has shown a mild hypnotic effect on laboratory flavonoids as a result of its animal component. No, wait, that was a mild hypnotic effect on laboratory animals as a result of its flavonoid component. Yea, verily.1
In layman’s terms, this herb rocks.
It has been said that chamomile is a gardener’s physician, and that “nothing contributes so much to the health of a garden as a number of Chamomile herbs dispersed about it, and... if another plant is drooping and sickly, in nine cases out of ten, it will recover if you place a herb of Chamomile near it.”3 I do not know the truth of this claim, but I do know that chamomile is a well-nigh indestructible plant. Guidelines for planting chamomile patches commonly recommend trampling the seedlings into place, as the act of crushing the plants will have no ill effect on them. Furthermore, this is a self-sowing plant, and its survival through the harshest of winters is virtually guaranteed when showier and more fragrant plants have given up the ghost. Chamomile plants can survive after being covered in two feet of snow. Even if they do succumb, the seeds will be just fine, and new chamomile plants will be amongst the first arrivals next Spring – coming up in patches all over your garden. If you want to keep it confined to one area, harvest the flowers before it’s too late. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Also amongst the new arrivals will be hordes of aphids. These vampiric little horrors seem to be irresistibly drawn to chamomile, and they overwinter on ground litter just as well as chamomile does. They tend to congregate around new flowers and leaves, and will make your perfect daisy-like chamomile flowers all puny and malformed. Their honeydew attracts ants, but do the ants kill the aphids? No, of course not. The treacherous little fuckers like aphids. They encourage them to grow in herds all over your tender herbs, proving once and for all that you can never really put your trust in anything that has more than four legs and communicates by scent. Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver recommends spraying vigorously with water three times, once every other day, in the morning, for light infestations of aphids, or using insecticidal soap for heavier ones. Pyrethrum spray is a possible last resort.4 Thermonuclear bombs in the 12-megaton range are a possible last last resort, preferably applied from Low Earth Orbit.5 Note that even if they don’t decimate your chamomile, aphid infestations will eventually spread to the rest of your herbs if left unchecked.
What none of these fine sources mention is that chamomile is gorgeous. It may not have the you-can’t-have-me sexiness of an orchid, and I don’t see too many people buying chamomile bouquets for their Valentines, but it is dangerously pretty in a Laura Ingalls Wilder sort of way. This is the second year I’ve been growing English chamomile in containers. It is a feathery little plant that spreads very nicely, and its flowers, when they have not had the life force sucked out of them by aphids, are pretty little daisy-like things. If you overwinter the plant indoors, it will flower around mid-Spring, and may flower during the winter as well. Left to its natural cycle, it will start flowering in early Summer. The blooms do not last very long, but they are abundant and quickly replaced. Despite the annoying aphid problem, this is one of my favourite plants – it is, after all, “adorable, therapeutic, and easy to grow.”
- Skidmore-Roth, Linda, Mosby’s Handbook of Herbs & Natural Supplements; 2001, Mosby, Inc., St. Louis, MO
- “Moon Times” issue IX, June 2002
- “Chamomiles”, Botanical.com, a Modern Herbalist;
- Ball, Jeff, Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver (Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs); 1988, Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA
- Cameron, J. et al, Aliens; 1986, 20th Century Fox, Hollywood, California