Roman and German Chamomile, A Profile

Photo by Dejan Kolar/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Dejan Kolar/iStock / Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 edition of Aromaculture Magazine.

Intro: What’s the difference?

Roman chamomile Chamaemelum nobile L. (syn. Anthemis nobilis L.) and German chamomile Matricaria recutita (syn. Matricaria chamomilla L., Chamomilla recutita L.) are both members of the Asteracea (Compositea) family, also known as the daisy or aster family. (13)

Roman chamomile, also called English chamomile, originated in the UK and western Europe, and traveled to northern Africa and southwestern Asia. (1,10) Chamaemelum nobile is an evergreen perennial, low growing and spreading, with hairy, decumbent stems, and fine, dissected, thread- or feather-like leaves. The flowers are capitulum with yellow tubular florets on the full, cone-shaped receptacle surrounded by white ray florets. (10,12,16)

German chamomile, by contrast, also called Hungarian chamomile, originated on continental Europe and made its way to western Asia. (1,4,5) Matricaria recutita is an upright herbaceous annual, usually growing 12 to 24 inches (30 to 60cm) in height. It has branched stems that terminate with flower heads and double pinnate thread-like, smooth leaves that are dark green. The flowers are inflorescences, or capitulum, comprised of yellow tubular florets on a domed, hollow receptacle surrounded by white ray flowers. (2,5,11,14)

References to chamomile can be found in herbal traditions from Egypt, the Middle East, India, the Mediterranean, and Europe. (2,5) However, there is still some speculation as to which species is being referenced in each instance due to lack of taxonomic clarity in the texts. The common name “chamomile” and its equivalents in other languages, such as “manzanilla” in Spanish, were used interchangeably for several similar species. The fact that multiple members of the Asteracea (Compositea) family are also used for medicinal purposes and have similar-looking flowers and properties added to the confusion. (1)

Both species are now cultivated and utilized in many parts of the world for their aroma and therapeutic benefits; they are some of the most commonly used aromatic herbs in Western herbalism. While the small, daisy-like blooms of these species do not have a classic floral aroma, they certainly represent an important contribution of flowers in aromatherapy and herbalism.

Indeed, the argument could be made that Roman and German chamomile are cornerstone essential oils in modern aromatherapy, so versatile and effective are their therapeutic actions. Yet, they are two of the most gentle, non-toxic, non-irritating essential oils and herbs as well.

On the surface, they may seem to be interchangeable due to commonalities in their names and traditional applications. Each has its own unique profile, however, and with some examination and experience, the areas where they are individually exceptional become clear.

Roman Chamomile Essential Oil

Roman chamomile essential oil is a clear to soft blue color, depending on the amount of chamazulene present. The essential oil is extracted from the flower heads through steam distillation. Roman chamomile has a distinct aroma, which is much more intense than the herbal infusion.

The name “chamomile” is from the Greek meaning, “ground apple,” and Roman chamomile has strong, sweet, fruity apple-like notes with earthy, green, hay-like qualities. To me, it is like walking through an apple orchard in the morning, smelling the combination of the soil and grass, the wood of the trees, and the fruits themselves, all waiting to be caressed by the sun.

The primary feature of Roman chamomile’s chemical constituents is its high ester content. There are several esters present in Roman chamomile, but the dominant one is isobutyl angelate. Esters are known for their antispasmodic and antifungal actions. There is a range of constituents reported for Roman chamomile essential oil, but the ester content is a consistent feature.

The ketone, pinocarvone, is also found in the essential oil. Ketones are known for their wound-healing and mucolytic properties.

Then we see the presence of monoterpenes, alpha-pinene and beta-pinene, known for their mucolytic actions. However, the sesquiterpene, chamazulene, present in small amounts, brings anti-inflammatory actions.

Looking at the complete picture of Roman chamomile essential oil we see a synergy of therapeutic actions: antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antifungal, calmative, mucolytic, expectorant, and wound-healing. (11,16) When assessing Roman chamomile’s therapeutic potential, the key feature is its strong antispasmodic actions.

Roman chamomile has an affinity with the digestive, nervous, respiratory, and integumentary systems. Through the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is associated with the wood element and the liver and gallbladder meridians and organs. Roman chamomile’s strong antispasmodic actions help to smooth the flow of Qi in the body. This action pairs with its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties to relieve “wind” in terms of TCM. Roman chamomile’s calmative properties soothe the Shen or spirit. (16, 19,20)

Emotionally, Roman chamomile can help relieve nervous anxiety, worry, agitation, depression, frustration, and anger. Overall, Roman chamomile can be viewed as a soothing, calming, sedating, and relieving essential oil.

The areas where I use Roman chamomile the most are: insomnia, pain from spasm/tension, neuralgia, premenstrual cramps, tension headaches, migraines, stress and anxiety leading to frustration, anger, fear, and fits of intense emotions, aging skin, insect bites and stings, and fungal infections.

In my experience, the personality of Roman chamomile reflects the strength of flexibility. Its sweet, fruity notes seem to soften everything they touch, but this yielding creates a sense of earthy security allowing for rest and comfort. However, Roman chamomile is not frivolous or flighty. I would liken it to an excellent housekeeper whose work is so essential to the home running smoothly; it keeps everyone and everything clean, functional, organized, and comfortable. It also brings a pleasantness and ease to life, which on the surface may seem mundane. But, if ever the housekeeper is absent, their services are dearly missed.

German Chamomile Essential Oil

German chamomile is a slightly viscous essential oil and is steam distilled from the flower heads. This essential oil is a deep blue color due to its chamazulene content, which gives it this brilliant hue, and has earned it the common name “blue chamomile.” Matricaria is from the Latin for “matrix” or “womb,” referring to the hollow receptacle of the flower, as well the traditional use of this species for imbalances of the female reproductive system. (2,5,10)

German chamomile essential oil has a deep, sweet, herbaceous, grassy, and slightly earthy aroma. While the aroma of German chamomile is intense and sweet like Roman chamomile, its fruity apple notes are greener. The deeper, heavier aroma of German chamomile essential oil reflects the higher levels of sesquiterpenes and their derivatives.

German chamomile essential oil does have several constituents in common with Roman chamomile, but in different proportions. German chamomile essential oil has a predominance of sesquiterpenoid constituents rather than a predominance of esters. The sesquiterpenes, chamazulene and farnesene, and the sesquiterpenol, alpha-bisabolol, bring anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Bisabolol oxides A and B bring analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. (4,6,21)

There are also monoterpenes present in small amounts. The exact proportions of these constituents will vary depending on the origin of the plant. For the highly desirable anti-inflammatory actions, one would use the levels of chamazulene and bisabolol as a marker of quality. Chemotypes with a predominance of these constituents can be more expensive, but are well worth it. Overall, there is a synergy of anti-inflammatory, anti-allergenic, antioxidant, antispasmodic, analgesic, antibacterial, antifungal, and sedative actions. (4,6,21)

Like Roman chamomile, German chamomile has an affinity with the digestive, nervous, respiratory, and integumentary systems. And, through the lens of TCM, German chamomile is also associated with the wood element and the liver and gallbladder meridians and organs. German chamomile shares Roman chamomile’s antispasmodic actions and regulation of Qi flow, as well as sedative actions that calm the Shen. However, with German chamomile, the emphasis is on its strong anti-inflammatory properties, which in TCM are described as heat relieving. (15,18,21)

Emotionally, German chamomile can help relieve feelings of anger, frustration, agitation, being overly controlling, holding on too tightly/needing to “let go,” and feeling constrained, hot tempered, or restless. Overall, German chamomile can be viewed as a soothing, calming, sedating, cooling, and easing essential oil.

The areas where I use German chamomile essential oil the most are: any type of skin rash or irritation that shows signs of heat (redness, itching, swelling, burning, pain), insect bites and stings, burns and sunburns, tension headaches and migraines, seasonal allergies, painful or irregular menstruation (dysmenorrhea), cuts and wounds, indigestion, and irregular bowel movements.

To me, the personality of German chamomile is kind while being firm and pragmatic, like an experienced school nurse who has attended to hundreds of children with open arms, willing to listen to any complaint. This nurse is wise, knowing when the feelings of malaise are arising from anxiety and overwhelm, sending the child back to class after a soothing pep talk, sticker, and a glass of water. Or, when there is a more serious matter at hand that needs attention, the nurse brings a skilled approach and intervention, willing to do what it takes to care for the child with calm reassurance.

Uses and Applications

The range of uses and potential applications for Roman and German chamomile are vast, and narrowing down the list of which ones to highlight is difficult because they are all so useful. Here are some tips on how to work with them:

1. These chamomiles have intense middle note aromas, which can be overwhelming in high concentrations. Also, the effects of these two essential oils are felt even at low concentrations. When used on their own, I generally keep the concentration between 1% to 5% for topical applications.

2. I generally prefer to use these chamomiles synergistically in a blend with essential oils that complete the therapeutic picture and balance the aroma profile. I generally recommend keeping the proportions of these chamomiles to around 25% or less in the essential oil blend due to their aroma intensities. Some of my favorite essential oils to blend synergistically with Roman or German chamomile are: marjoram O. majorana, clary sage S. sclarea, rose R. damascena, petitgrain C. aurantium, lavender L. angustifolia, Atlas cedarwood C. atlantica, Virginian cedarwood J. virginiana, cypress C. sempervirens, geranium P. graveolens, black spruce P. mariana, grand fir A. grandis, manuka L. scoparium, frankincense B. cartertii, rosemary R. officinalis CT verbenone, ravensara R. aromatica, peppermint M. piperita, spearmint M. spicata, mandarin C. reticulata, cardamom E. cardamomum, ginger Z. officinalis, and myrrh C. molmol.

3. Roman chamomile and German chamomile create a wonderful synergy with each other, and I often find myself using them in tandem together in blends for: migraines, tension headaches, premenstrual symptoms, insomnia, and skin rashes and infections.

4. Roman and German chamomile work well with the following methods of application: compresses, steam inhalations, diluted in carrier oil for topical applications, personal inhalers (aroma sticks, aroma jewelry, aroma stones), and diffusers. I do find Roman chamomile diffuses more readily than German chamomile.

5. When working with a sensitive individual, sensitive skin, or a sensitive area, Roman and German chamomile are some of the most gentle, non-irritating essential oils, and can be a good place to start. Always make sure to skin patch test, and double check for allergies to the Asteracea (Compositea) family first.

Growing Roman and German Chamomile

These species would both be a welcome addition to an aromatic or herbal garden. And while these chamomiles have historically grown wild and prospered in difficult terrain and in poor soils, I have had several gardeners tell me they have challenges getting them to grow.

In my own experience, German chamomile is a hardier species, and easier to propagate. Roman chamomile tends to be more delicate, especially in the early stages of growth. Grower and distiller Jessica Ring of Ring Botanicals says she has also noticed that Roman chamomile did not thrive at her farm property (a place most plants love), but did grow wonderfully at her Portland property. She says she separates the new baby plants as early as February, since their roots are so delicate and do not like to be transferred later in the season. She also uses Roman chamomile as a healer plant in beds infested with bugs, allowing the Roman chamomile to grow in the bed for a year. (23)

Neither Roman or German chamomile like over watering, and prefer a more sandy, well-drained soil with full to almost full sun. The double flower varieties of Roman chamomile are noted to do well in a richer soil. Once you find a spot they enjoy, both are quite easy to maintain. I will add a few rocks to containers or beds where I grow them, starting the seeds indoors and then transferring the seedlings. Roman chamomile will spread through creeping stems, and can become a ground cover. German chamomile will self reseed and keep appearing in the garden annually. Harvest newly opened flower heads to dry for tea or tincture preparations. (1,11,12)

General cautions: Both species are generally considered safe when used in normal amounts. But, there is the possibility of contact dermatitis or skin irritation, especially if the individual has sensitivities or allergies to plants from the Asteracea (Compositea) plant family. Also, there is a very small amount of coumarin present, which should not pose problems unless used in high amounts. However, it is recommended to be aware that there are possible interactions with drugs due to interactions with P450 liver enzyme pathways. (15,24,25)


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