During these bitter cold winter days, there is nothing more rewarding than curling up with a good book and a cup of hot tea. But as more and more herbal teas become popular, have you ever stopped to consider the herbal history behind the soothing sips? Take for instance the classic cup of chamomile tea. The name “chamomile” actually refers to a few different plants in the Asteraceae family: German Chamomile (Matricaria chamimila), Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) and Stinking Chamomile (Anthemis cotula) just to name a few. In modern applications (and most likely in your tea cupboard) German Chamomile is the most used although medicinally they have been lumped together throughout time.
Pedanius Dioscorides commented on more than one variety of chamomile in his influential text De Materia Medica. Published between 50 and 70 C.E, Dioscorides comments that chamomiles
taken as a drink of a decoction (or by bathing), they expel the menstrual flow, are abortifacients, expel stones (urinary, kidney), and induce urine (Dioscorides)
(A decoction is the extraction of plant chemicals through boiling, which varies slightly from the common modern method of tea which results in an infusion from steeping, although you could boil your herbs in your tea water to easily create a decoction. Very likely in this application, the difference is negligible.)
He also wrote specifically that Stinking Chamomile “is fit for bathing a hardened and inflamed womb” (Dioscorides).
Around this same time, Pliny the Elder was writing about the medicinal properties of the plant in his work Naturalis Historia published between 77 and 79 C.E. John Riddle, in his work Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance claims that Pliny was the first to list chamomile as a medicinal herb, stating that Pliny
named thirteen plants that were emmenagogues or expelled a dead fetus but that had not appeared in earlier sources, including.. chamomile (Riddle, 1992)
however, as I pointed out above, Dioscorides was writing about this herb a few years before Pliny. In anycase, by the first century of the common era, chamomile was known as an available remedy for delayed menstruation due to unwanted pregnancy or other reason.
In the middle ages, chamomile was still used explicitly for fertility related issues. The Macer’s Herbal called for its use as a menstrual stimulator, Petrus Marancius wrote in the 13th century work Tables that chamomile was an abortifacient, and the female gynecologist Trotula recommend combining chamomile with artemisia as a topical application (Riddle, 1992).
So now, as you sip your warm glass of tea are you thinking to yourself how happy you are to live in the era of modern science? Well, don’t get smug. In the 1633 revision of The Generall Historie of Plantes John Gerard wrote that chamomile
is a great remedy against diseases of the matrix [womb], it procureth womens sickness with speed, it bringeth forth the afterbirth and dead child, whether is be drunk in a decoction, or boiled in a bath and the women sit over it, or the herbs sodden and applied to the privie part, in a manner of cataplasme or poultice (Artschwager, 1996)
What does that have to do with modern science? Well remember, these so called “folk” remedies never really go away. Just last week, the internet was buzzing with the news that Gwyneth Paltrow recommended herbal vagina steam cleanings at a trendy spa in California to help “balance female hormone levels.” That doesn’t sound too different that Gerard’s recommendation almost 400 years ago.
Even now in rural Mexico, chamomile is used to ease the cramps of childbirth where
the tea is sipped during labor and after delivery to ease the pain or a handful of herbs may be boiled and placed below the vagina for the vapors can reach the cervix (Davidow, 1999)
So next time you enjoy the steaming vapors of your cuppa, remember: there is a long and fruitful history of women medicating with those herbs.