The Botany And Chemistry Of German Chamomile Tea
    By Enrico Uva | June 20th 2011 09:47 AM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

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    1. Botany
    German chamomile, Matricaria recutita, is sufficiently different from the also drinkable Roman chamomile that botanists don’t classify them under the same genus. (A genus is group of similar species.) Both plants, however, have flowers typical of the Compositae or Asteraceae family, a group of genera that also includes dandelions, sunflowers and lettuce. What looks like a single flower is actually a composite of tiny, identical flowers, giving members of this family the power to produce a greater number and wider variety of seeds. My diagram shows the basic structure of such flowers; note, however, that the pictures of the actual samples shown are from another member of the Compositae family. German chamomile flowers are a little smaller than the ones I preserved.

    2. Traditional Uses

    Traditionally, the essential oil obtained from chamomile flowers has been used to treat inflammations of the skin and mucosa. It is also inhaled to treat nasal catarrh, inflammation and irritation of the respiratory tract. The tea is drunk to treat
    flatulent nervous dyspepsia, gastritis, diarrhea, travel sickness and mild anxiety. Is there any evidence that chamomile has any medicinal properties.

    3. Evidence

    In human studies, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antispasmodic effects have been attributed to compounds known as flavanoids and sesquiterpenes. One of the sesquiterpenes, chamazulene, has been reported to have antioxidant activity in a 2000 study on rapeseed oil. More recently, in December 2004, the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reported a study on chamomile chemistry. The authors used high resolution 1H nmr spectroscopy and other methods in what is known as a metabonic strategy. This technology tries to obtain meaningful results for nutritional interventions, which typically are complicated by many variables such as genetics, gender and environmental factors. The equivalent of 5 cups of chamomile tea (Matricaria recutita) were given to 14 volunteers for a period of two weeks. For a total of six weeks, their urine samples were monitored: two weeks prior to ingestion (to serve as a baseline) and also for two weeks after treatment to examine any potential lingering effects. The most significant result was that the volunteers excreted more

    hippurate, glycine and an unknown metabolite.

    The levels of hippurate also were elevated in the post treatment period. Previous studies had revealed that hippurate levels fluctuate as different microbes battle it out within a rat’s gut. Since evidence exists for chamomile flowers’ antimicrobial activity, one possible explanation put forward by the authors is that the chamomile killed some bacteria in the intestines. Two weeks after treatment, different populations of microorganisms had still not reestablished the original equilibrium between themselves. They point out that this is significant since these intestinal bacteria have a serious impact on digestive absorption and on the immune system.

    4. Other Molecules in Chamomile

    Beat trans- farnesene is a compound built up with 3 isoprene units (5 carbons),  which are common building blocks of natural products. A similar compound(the alpha version) gives green apples their characteristic odour. The beta form that is found in chamomile is also found in other essential oils, and it's the chemical alarm messenger used by aphids when attacked.

    Angelic acid, a relatively simple molecule, tends to be more common in Roman chamomile. The esters of the compound have been used as a sedative.
    One of science 2.0's featured writers pointed out that
    chamazulene is another compound found in Matricaria recutita. The molecule is a derivative of an azulene, the name given to the two ringed system shown here: Azalenes are colored compounds and their derivatives are found in mushrooms and even in invertebrates. But what role does chamazulene play? It has anti inflammatory properties according to one published paper, which in its abstract dubbed chamazulene as a natural "ibuprofen"(Advil), an NSAID (non steroidal anti inflammatory drug).


    1.  United States Department of Agriculture

    2.  Wink and van Wyk. Medicinal Plants of the World. Timber Press. 2004

    3.  Wang,Y., Tang, H. A Metabonic Strategy for the Detection of the Metabolic Effects of Chamomile( Matricaria recutita L.) Ingestion. J. Agricultural and Food Chemistry

    v. 53(2): p.191-196, 2005

    4. Gibson, R. W.&Pickett, J. A. (14 April 1983), "Wild potato repels aphids by release of aphid alarm pheromone", Nature 302 (5909): 608–609, doi:10.1038/302608a0, 

    5. Avé, D. A., Gregory, P., Tingey, W. M. (July 1987), "Aphid repellent sesquiterpenes in glandular trichomes of Solanum berthaultii and S. tuberosum", Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 44: 131–138, doi:10.1007/BF00367620

    6. Ernest Small Culinary herbs, National Research Council Canada, 2006, ISBN 0660190737 p. 288

    The Aromatic Plant Project



    I didn’t realize that German and Roman chamomiles were so distinct.  The German version is annual, while the Roman version is perennial, which caused me some horticultural confusion  a few years ago (now cleared up).

     German chamomile, Matricaria recutita.
     Roman chamomile, Anthemis nobilis.

    And this is chamazulene, or “Chamomile Blue”, obtained from the German plant by steam distillation.  What a molecule to find in a plant!    Though it is a sesquiterpene, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Great illustration of Roman chamomile! Chamazulene ,an azulene derivative, is not only found in German chamomile but in wormwood, a plant used to make absinthe. But chamazulene is not responsible for absinthe's effects. Azulenes lead to interesting natural products; thx you gave me an idea for an extension to the chamomile article. Maybe after watering the garden tonight, maybe after my wife falls asleep so she doesn't scream at me for having my nose in the books or laptop again!
    Interesting submission, with kernels of valuable information; however I fail to comprehend what conclusions the author is trying to share with the reader. e.g The last two sentences in 3. Evidence, "Two weeks after treatment, different populations of microorganisms had still not reestablished the original equilibrium between themselves. They point out that this is significant since these intestinal bacteria have a serious impact on digestive absorption and on the immune system.". Are we to conclude that consuming matricaria recutita tea creates a positive or negative outcome by destabilizing the intestinal flora? Is the "serious impact on digestive absorption and on the immune system" beneficial or hazardous?

    It's not likely hazardous. Major changes in diet also have an impact on flora, but what's interesting here is that it's happening from just a few chemicals that happen to be in a common tea.
    Usually you like to mention the druggy angle - what happened? My first experience with German Chamomile was an absolute knock-out. Put me asleep for two days. See also here and here. You know erowid, right? It is the most important webpage out there for people interested into a certain type of chemistry.
    I did not realize that angelic acid levels could be elevated enough to have such strong sedative effects. But if true, it would be consistent with what is generally true about herbal medicines: growing conditions have a strong influence on the concentration of active ingredients.