Quiet chamomile

One of my favorite memories harvesting herbs in Southern Oregon was at Herb Pharm in Williams during the summer of 2001. Recalling the muddy, muscle-aching root harvests of early March still can't dull my Technicolor memories of a field full of chamomile.

To harvest, we kept our hands open and fingers all about a quarter-inch apart, then ran our hands through the stems like small rakes, gently tugging on the dainty, little flowers to free them. Chamomile's composite array of white petals surrounds squishy, yellow "Seuss-like" button centers.

There are a couple of common varieties of chamomile, both members of the Asteraceae or composite botanical family. Chamomile —— Matricaria, as it's technically known —— is a great candidate for growing in gardens, not only because it's pretty and grows exceptionally well in our region, but also because it has a wide array of medicinal uses.

I often recommend parents give it to kids as a sleepy tea because chamomile has mild sedative and anti-anxiety properties but also helps with digestive upset, including cramps, gas and bloating. Chamomile can be a parent's best friend with an array of common kids' complaints. Though it's very mild tasting and easily sweetened with a small amount of honey, stevia or xylitol powder, chamomile is not just kids' stuff.

Adults benefit equally from chamomile, which possesses a nature-made marriage of specifically therapeutic compounds: anti-inflammatory polyphenol plant chemicals and small amounts of mucilage, a "slippery" and viscous type of fiber that soothes irritated tissue. Chamomile has been used topically for treating eczema, as well. Moreover, because chamomile is easy to grow in the garden, by using it we'd potentially be limiting impact on wild counterparts that possess similar benefits.

Mucilage is a powerful substance that can help diabetics regulate blood sugar, and chamomile isn't the only herb or food that contains it. Okra contains more, and prickly-pear cactus pads eaten as "nopalitos" in Mexico possess a similarly slimy, yet soothing, texture.

One of the clinics where I work, the Mederi Centre for Natural Healing in Ashland, carries a therapeutic mix of herbs rich in mucilage, which we sell to people with conditions ranging from mouth sores to sore throats or gastric and intestinal inflammation. The combination also contains licorice root, slippery-elm bark and marshmallow root, and tastes delicious but becomes slightly "thick" from the healing mucilage.

Chamomile combines well with other herbs that help promote sleep. A short list includes passionflower, valerian and lavender, all widely available in local herb shops that carry individual herbs and grocery stores that sell tea-bag blends and bulk herbs.

We can grow many herbs for a diverse tea selection, but leave it to quiet chamomile to go the extra mile.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at altmanm@sou.edu.

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