Dear Readers, you might remember that I am giving Veganuary a go this month, and while I am thoroughly enjoying my flat whites with oat milk (and I can heartily recommend drinking chocolate with coconut milk for anyone who remembers Bounty bars), I have not found anything that really works with my builder’s tea. And so, I am mostly drinking chamomile tea, and very delicious it is too – I always think that it smells very slightly of pineapple (not surprising as pineappleweed is a close relative), but the name is actually derived from the Greek words for ‘apple’ and ‘earth’ – you can certainly pick up an apple-y flavour too. This herbal tea doesn’t need the addition of milk, dairy or otherwise, and furthermore it has a long-established reputation for soothing frazzled nerves – Peter Rabbit was given chamomile tea to drink after being chased by Mr McGregor in Beatrix Potter’s ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s certainly good enough for me.
As it turns out, lots of different, closely-related plants are known as chamomile (or occasionally camomile). The UK’s chamomile is Chamaemelum nobile, or Roman chamomile, which is considered a native rather than a present from the Romans (they gave us rabbits, horse chestnut trees, fallow deer, indoor plumbing and Hadrian’s wall after all so we shouldn’t be greedy). To look at, this is just a very delicate, daisy-like flower, but sadly it’s listed as Vulnerable – my Harrap’s guide describes it as ‘Very locally abundant in damp turf(especially old commons), on sandy, mildly acid soils, kept short by grazing, mowing, trampling or, on clifftops and other coastal grassland, exposure to the wind’. We will be returning to the theme of ‘trampling’ later in this piece!
The map in the book shows that it’s largely confined to the West Country and areas south and west of London in England, and in the far south-west tip of Ireland. Do let me know if you’ve seen it in your area – it seems such a shame to lose it!
In researching this piece, I came across this wonderful post by Marion Mackonochie on the Mecklenburgh Square website – the square is in Islington, just around the corner from where I used to live. Mackonochie explains that in addition to its reputation as a mild sedative and mood-enhancer, chamomile has been widely used for skin inflammation, indigestion, the relief of hysteria and for the easing of muscle spasms. In Germany, the plant was known as ‘Alles Zutraut’, meaning ‘capable of anything’, and in Slovakia people have in the past bowed to the plant when they saw it. However, it can also set off an allergic reaction, particularly in people who are already allergic to ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) (a North American member of the daisy family, not to be confused with our yellow-flowered ragwort species), so it’s worth being circumspect.
Now, you might remember a TV series called ‘The Chamomile Lawn’, based on a book by Mary Wesley (though as it was on television in (gulp) 1984 you’ll have to be in your prime to have seen it). It follows a family meeting up in Cornwall for a family reunion after the Second World War, and the lawn in question formed part of the garden of the aunt who owns the Cornish house. It was a roaring success, and I suspect that a lot of people were so intrigued that they decided that they’d attempt their own chamomile lawn. Alas, such lawns are not really meant for playing football on (pace Shakespeare, who in Henry IV Part I describes the attributes of chamomile as ‘the more it is trodden, the faster it grows’) and they certainly won’t work on heavy soil, or in dry or dingy conditions. You will need 80 – 100 plants per square metre. In a spot where there’s not too much footfall, I imagine that the smell of the lightly-crushed leaves would be delightful.
Incidentally, the variety of Roman chamomile that is recommended for creating a chamomile lawn, called ‘Treneague’, doesn’t flower, which rather defeats the purpose in my eyes. It’s nice to have the smell, but how about the flowers? The one in the photo below would be rather nice, though I do have my doubts about the good intentions of the cat.
Camomile Tea by Katherine Mansfield
Outside the sky is light with stars;
There’s a hollow roaring from the sea.
And, alas! for the little almond flowers,
The wind is shaking the almond tree.
How little I thought, a year ago,
In the horrible cottage upon the Lee
That he and I should be sitting so
And sipping a cup of camomile tea.
Light as feathers the witches fly,
The horn of the moon is plain to see;
By a firefly under a jonquil flower
A goblin toasts a bumble-bee.
We might be fifty, we might be five,
So snug, so compact, so wise are we!
Under the kitchen-table leg
My knee is pressing against his knee.
Our shutters are shut, the fire is low,
The tap is dripping peacefully;
The saucepan shadows on the wall
Are black and round and plain to see.
Photo One By ianakoz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38538888
Photo Two by By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9482794
Photo Three by By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9482809