Chamomile: A Medicinal Plant

Chamomile, Matricaria recutita L. (Chamomilla recutita (L.) Rauschert), can be considered a star among medicinal species. Numerous cases where the essential oil and/or other components of this plant produced curative effects have been documented ( 1, 3) and the plant is included in the pharmacopoeia of 26 countries ( 4). Pharmacological properties include anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, carminative, healing, sedative, and spasmolytic activity. One constituent, (-)-à-bisabolol, is regularly recommended in the treatment of ulcers induced by alcohol or X-ray burns.

The pharmaceutical useful elements of chamomile are observed primarily in the flower (anthodia) (Figure 1). As a medicine, dried flowers (Flos chamomilae) are an age-old remedy, known in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. At one time the Egyptians considered the plant sacred, a present from the sun god useful for alleviating the effects of high temperatures and sun strokes. Plinius, the Roman historian, named the plant "Chamaelon" and descriptions of the plant are in the writings of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen. Blue chamomile oil was recommended for treatment of colic by 1588 ( 2).

About 120 chemical constituents have been identified in chamomile as secondary metabolites, including 28 terpenoids, 36 flavonoids, and 52 additional compounds with potential pharmacological activity ( 3) (Figure 2). While (-)-à-bisabolol and chamazulene have proved to have the most bioactive properties, flavonoids such as apigenin and luteolin exhibit anti-inflammatory activity and the en-in-diclycloethers have antispasmolytic effects. Allergic reactions to this drug rarely occur.

The world market currently has chamomile drug of various origins and therapeutical values. In the 1970s, plant material was evaluated by the content of essential oil and the content of chamazulene ( 2). As good methods for determining drug constituents and effectiveness have been developed, the flower content of (-)-à-bisabolol has become an important indicator of drug quality and value. As a result, 4 basic chemical types of chamomile (A, B, C, & D) are recognized, according to the qualitative and quantitative composition of the essential oil. Countries which are the major suppliers of chamomile for the world market, Poland, Hungary, Germany, Argentina, and Czecho-Slovakia, have recently initiated intensive plant improvement programs to produce plants with high levels of oils with a defined chemical composition.

Crop production

The best growth of chamomile occurs in light, sandy loam soil with abundant moisture and high levels of nitrogen and potassium. Plants are usually seeded in early autumn (August 15 - September 15), late autumn (October 1 - winter months), or early spring (March 1 - April 30), depending upon moisture conditions. Early autumn plantings are done in areas with regular autumn rainfalls, late autumn seedings are used in regions with early frost and little snowfall, and spring seedings are used in areas with spring rainfall of at least 2 inches.

Seeds begin to germinate at 6 to 7 øC (43-45øF) and will emerge in 7 to 10 days after seeding. Seedling development is initially very slow, requiring good weed control so that the plants can get a vigorous start. Soil preparation should assure the seeds plenty of moisture and light.

In Czecho-Slovakia, fields are prepared by plowing, clod breaking, and harrowing. Herbicides and fertilizers are added as needed to control weeds and provide adequate plant nutrition. The surface of the soil is subsequently firmed by rolling to assure good seed-soil contact. Seeding is at 1.5 to 2.0 kg/ha (1.3 - 1.8 lb/acre) with plants established in rows 10 to 80 cm ( 4-32inches) apart. The seeds are placed in small sowing furrows 5 to 10 cm ( 2-4inches) above the field surface to speed germination and emergence. Hydrosowing machinery is under development in Czecho-Slovakia.

Leaf rosettes are formed in 30 to 40 days and the flower anthodia follow quickly. Optimal temperature for the flowering phase of growth is 19 to 20 øC (66-68øF). At higher temperatures, 28 to 32 øC (82-90øF), the flowering period is shortened. Best yields are reached in areas with a mean rainfall of at least 45 cm (18 inches) during the growing season.

Flower heads are picked when fully developed using various mechanical harvesters. The biomass is separated into flowers and "waste" material mechanically and generally dried in drying sheds using forced hot air. The drug (flowers) is delivered directly to processing enterprises while the remaining plant tissue is used in the production of essential oil and water or water-ethanol extracts. Following extraction, the plant tissue is mixed in feed for livestock.

Under monoculture conditions, chamomile usually will flower 2 to 3 times per year. Regeneration of flower heads after harvesting normally requires about 10 to 20 days, depending upon weather conditions. Fields are generally sown to chamomile for 2 to 3 years with no loss in production. Some fields in CzechoSlovakia have been planted in chamomile for 8 years.

Drug yield is changeable during individual years, but regularly ranges between 300 to 500 kg dry flowers per hectare. Optimization of agroecosystems, knowledge of specific ecophysiological requirements, and selection of specific types can lead to 1000 to 1200 kg/ha (900 to 1000 lb/acre) of dry flowers. The varieties `Bona,' `Kosice-2,' and the cultivar `Koice-1' have been developed through selection and breeding efforts. Normally, these new types have over twice the essential oil content of the older `Bohemia' variety and, in the case of `Bona' and `Kosice-2' have chemical profiles much higher in (-)-à-bisabolol and chamazulene ( 5).

Mechanization of harvest has advanced with the construction of prototype harvesters manufactured by the Agricultural Enterprise Rozkvet, Nova Lubovna, Czecho-Slovakia ( 5). Flower heads are collected using a comb roller and moved by vacuum through tubes into trimmers. On level fields of uniform density, the harvester captures 85 percent of first-quality chamomile flowers.

Profits

An examination of possible profits indicates the value of chamomile in Czecho-Slovakia. The sale price of flowers is approximately 90 - 110 Czecho-Slovakian crowns per kg ($3.15-$3.85/lb). An average yield is 400 kg/ha (350 lb/acre), resulting in a product worth 36,000 to 44,000 crowns ($500- $600). Under optimal conditions, yields of chamomile can reach 1000 kg/ha.
References

1. Farkas, L. 1982. Antiulcer effects of chamomile (in Slovak). Nase liecive rastliny 19:62.

2. Isaac, O. 1989. Recent Progress in Chamomile Research -- Medicines of Plant Origin in Modern Therapy. Prague, Czecho-Slovakia. p. 7

3. Mann, C. and E.J. Staba. 1986. The chemistry, pharmacology, and commercial formulations of chamomile. In Herbs, Spices, and Medicinal Plants -- Recent Advances in Botany, Horticulture, and Pharmacology, L.E. Craker & J.E. Simon, editors. Oryx Press, Phoenix, AZ. pp. 235-280.

4. Pamukov, D. and Ch. Achtardziev. 1986. Natural Pharmacy (in Slovak). Priroda, Bratislava. 305 p.

5. Salamon, I. 1992. Production of Chamomile, Chammilla recutita (L.) Rauschert, in Slovakia. Journ. of Herbs, Spices, and Medicinal Plants 1: (in press).

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The Herb, Spice, and Medicinal Plant Digest.

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By Ivan Salamon

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