There are two primary kinds of chamomile that are used in aromatherapy. The first is German chamomile, Matricaria recutita, which you will sometimes see referenced as Matricaria chamomilla or Chamomilla recutita. The other is Roman chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile, which you will sometimes see referenced as Anthemis nobilis. Botanical names can change throughout the years as we learn more about how plants are classified, so that’s why some of the older literature will use different botanical names than more modern literature.
Both chamomiles are in the Asteraceae family and have compound flower heads comprised of ray and disk florets. The ray florets are the white “petals” and the disk florets are the clusters of little yellow florets in the center of the flower heads. German chamomile is an annual plant that grows to about 18-24” and Roman chamomile is a creeping perennial (in some growing zones) that stays about 6” tall, though when it sends up flower spikes, they can reach about 12” in height. The leaves of both species are feathery and aromatic, pinnately divided, and bright green. Both the foliage and the flower heads are aromatic, with a warm, apple-y, sweet scent. There are wild chamomiles, but not all have the same aroma or therapeutic effects.
Roman and German chamomiles are often used interchangeably in their herbal form, but there are a few things to keep in mind about how they can behave differently. In herbal forms (teas, tinctures, dried plant material, etc.), Roman chamomile is far more likely to cause an allergic or adverse reaction than German chamomile. Since their actions are so similar, when it comes to using the herb itself, I recommend using German chamomile whenever possible.
In their essential oil forms, however, they are different enough that, while they could theoretically be used interchangeably in some cases, Roman chamomile essential oil is generally better suited for spasmodic ailments and German chamomile is best employed for inflammation.
A Matter of Chemistry
Chamomile flowers are rich in volatile oils with constituents like alpha bisabolol and matricin. Matricin, a sesquiterpene molecule with anti-inflammatory effects, when put through the heat of the distillation process, converts to chamazulene, which gives chamomile essential oil its rich blue color. Chamazulene is an azulene, a compound derived from a sesquiterpene, with anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic effects.
German chamomile and Roman chamomile essential oils, while both derived from chamomiles, have differences in their chemical constituents that make them useful for different therapeutic purposes. German chamomile tends to be rich with sesquiterpene molecules like alpha- and beta-farnesene while Roman chamomile is more dominant in ester molecules like methallyl and methylamyl angelates. Generally speaking, sesquiterpenes are beneficial for reducing inflammation while calming the body and mind. Esters, while sometimes also anti-inflammatory, are more recognized for their strong antispasmodic actions. They help us to relax, reducing tension and the cramping, tight feeling that accompanies it. Physically, they are good for relieving muscle cramps, spasmodic cramps and coughs, and feelings of stress and overwhelm.
When stress and tension are occurring alongside inflammation, the two can even be used to complement each other in blends.
Aromatically, both chamomile essential oils provide a rich, sweet-smelling middle-to-base note for aromatherapy blends and fragrances. They pair especially well with the sweetness of sweet orange essential oil, which brightens it a bit and synergizes with chamomile’s calming and uplifting effects.
The aroma of chamomile is warm and uplifting, helping to lift the spirits and make us feel safe and calm. Chamomiles can be useful in sleep-supportive blends. The essential oils can be added to hand creams that you apply after getting into bed and massage into your skin to help you feel relaxed before you go to sleep.
Energetically, chamomile essential oils help to keep things moving and flowing so that energy doesn’t get “stuck” somewhere in the body and cause pain, achiness, or inflammation. They’re wonderful for calming the inflammatory or tense emotions (anger, anxiety, frustration, etc.) and helping us to feel strong, peaceful, relaxed and nourished.
Physically, chamomile essential oils are incorporated in blends to help support the nervous system (German and Roman), the immune system (mainly German), the musculoskeletal system (German and Roman), and sometimes the respiratory system (Roman). German chamomile essential oil can also be used to soothe irritated skin and help the skin recover from minor wounds.
I find chamomile essential oils especially useful for people who are dealing with anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares and PTSD. Aside from using the herb itself, the essential oil can be added to infused oils, smelling salts, massage oils, lotions and creams, butters and salves to help center the mind, calm the nervous system, and restore balance. It marries the grounding and uplifting effects of other essential oils well, and since both effects are needed in such cases, it works really well in blends for people who are dealing with these things.
Have you worked with either of the chamomile essential oils? Which one do you tend to reach for most? Let me know in the comments section below.