Monday, 26 May 2014

Keep Calm and Pick Some Chamomile!

One of the things I love about living in Bulgaria is the abundance of herbs that are literally bursting out of the pavements here. This time of year the wild larder is stocked high with so many wonderful plants, this morning my attention was taken by Chamomile.

Every year we harvest this plant and dry it for a supply of herbal teas. The first time I collected chamomile I was confused in trying to identify the plant . Browsing through herb books to look up the herb I found many names, both common and scientific. First of all the word chamomile is sometimes spelled camomile then there’s Roman (or English) chamo­mile, a perennial, and German (or Hungarian) chamomile, an annual. The German species might be listed as Matricaria chamomilla, Chamomilla recutita, or Matricaria recutita. Roman chamomile is referred to in some sources as Anthemis nobilis, in others as Chamaemelum ­nobile. To be bring some clarity to this issue I present the following.

The currently accepted nomenclature is  
  • Matricaria recutita - German Chamomile, the annual
  • Chamaemelum nobile - Roman Chamomile, the perennial.  
The plant growing in abundance around our house is Matricaria recutita - German Chamomile


Telling Chamomile Species Apart

An easy way to distinguish the Chamaemelum nobile- Roman from  Matricaria recutita - German is by splitting the flower receptacle open down the middle. If the recep­tacle is solid, it is Chamaemelum nobile - Roman; if hollow, it is Matricaria recutita - German. You should test five or ten flowers to be sure, because ­occasionally a German chamomile flower will be solid in the interior.

Matricaria recutita - German Chamomile

Roman chamomile has slightly hairy stems, while those of the ­German are smooth. In the live plant, the flowers of Roman chamomile sit singly atop the stem, while those of the German are on divided stems in a comb-like arrangement (known as a corymb).

Plant Descriptions

Matricaria recutita - German Chamomile is a sweet-scented, branching plant whose tiny leaves are twice-divided into thin linear segments. The flowers, up to one inch across, have a hollow, cone-shaped receptacle, with tiny yellow disk flowers covering the cone. The cone is surrounded by 10 to 20 white, down-curving ray flowers, giving it the appearance of a miniature daisy. German chamomile is native to Europe and Western Asia.

Matricaria recutita - German Chamomile

Chamaemelum nobile - Roman Chamomile, on the other hand, has a spreading habit and grows only about a foot high. Leaves are twice or thrice divided into linear segments, which are flatter and thicker than those of German chamomile. Its flowers are also up to 3cm across, but its disk is a broader conical shape, and the receptacle is solid.
Chamaemelum nobile - Roman Chamomile

Medicinal Usage  

German chamo­mile, and to a lesser extent, Roman chamomile, is among the best-researched medicinal herbs now used in Europe. It is used in a wide variety of ways and in dozens of products: compresses, rinses, or gargles are used externally for the treatment of inflammations and irritations of the skin, mouth, gums, and respiratory tract, and for hemorrhoids. A chamomile bath—450g of flowers to 75L of water—is also used.
Internally, a tea made from 2 to 3 grams of the herb to a cup of water is used to relieve spasms and inflammations of the intestinal tract, as well as for peptic ulcers. A mild tea is also used as a sleeping aid, particularly for children. These medicinal uses, cited in a monograph developed by the European Scientific Cooperative for Phytomedicine, are backed by intensive research of recent years as well as many centuries of common use.


Harvesting and Drying Chamomile  

Run your fingers through the plants catching the flowers heads as you go. I always leave a few heads on the plants, remembering the flower heads are the next generation of plants.  I lay the flower heads on trays and leave the trays in a south facing window, turning periodically to ensure an even dry. After the heads are dry, they are put into jars and stored in a dark, cool place and....voilĂ !  You have a ready supply of calm in a jar.  
Matricaria recutita - German Chamomile drying out

For more info on these plants click below for the Plants for Future profiles of the two species.  

Matricaria recutita - German Chamomile 
Chamaemelum nobile - Roman Chamomile


Excerpted from Steven Foster's "Chamomile" article in "The Herb Companion." Dec. 1992/Jan. 1993, Vol. 5, No. 2. Pp. 67-68.

We offer a range of plants and seeds for permaculture and forest gardens from our plant nursery including a new range of fruit and nut cultivars well suited to natural gardens. Delivery to all over Europe available from Nov - March

 Balkan Ecology Project Bio-Nursery 

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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Nitrogen Fixing Plants

Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant growth and development and although around 78% of the earth's atmosphere is nitrogen, plants cannot utilise this. Plants instead depend upon combined or fixed forms of nitrogen, such as ammonia and nitrate. Currently the majority of this nitrogen is provided to cropping systems in the form of industrially produced nitrogen fertilizers. Use of these fertilizers has led to worldwide ecological problems, such as the formation of coastal dead zones, and requires a high energy input to produce. Biological nitrogen fixation, on the other hand, offers a natural means of providing nitrogen for plants.   

Legume aka Pulse Crop) in association with Rhizobium bacteria.  

Biological Nitrogen fixation is an important component of organic gardening/farming, forest gardening and other agro-eco practices. Through a partnership with micro-organisms in their roots, some plants can turn atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen fertilizers useful to themselves but also becoming available to their neighbors over time through root die back, leaf fall, and chop and drop pruning. These are known as the nitrogen fixing plants.
This is a mutually beneficial relationship with the plant providing carbohydrates obtained from photosynthesis to the microorganism and in exchange for these carbon sources, the microbes provide fixed nitrogen to the host plant. 
While it does not replace the need to bring in other nutrients depleted by harvests such as phosphorus and calcium, nitrogen fixation provides a valuable biological source of an essential fertilizer.

There are two main groups of microbes that plants associate with in order to utilise the atmospheric nitrogen to fuel growth. They are  Frankia and Rhizobium.


Many plants partner with micro-organisms called Frankia, a group of Actinobacteria. These plants are known as the actinorhizal nitrogen fixers.

Frankia can be seen above as the yellow nodules forming around the roots of an Alder - Alnus sp. 
Actinorhizal plants are found in many ecosystems including alpine, xeric, chapparal, forest, glacial till, riparian, coastal dune, and arctic tundra environments and can be found in the following plant families  
  • Betulaceae, the birch family.
  • Myricaceae, the bayberry family.
  • Casuarinaceae, the Austraian “pines”.
  • Elaeagnaceae, the oleasters.
  • Rosaceae, the rose family.
  • Rhamnaceae, the buckthorn family.
These plants tend to thrive in nitrogen-poor environments and are often the pioneer species in plant communities playing an important role in plant succession.

Balkan Ecology Project Nitrogen Fixing plants 


By far the most important nitrogen-fixing symbiotic associations are the relationships between legumes (plants in the family Fabaceae) and Rhizobium and Bradyrhizobium bacteria. These plants are commonly used in agricultural systems such as alfalfa, beans, clover, cowpeas, lupines, peanut, soybean, and vetches. 
The Rhizobium or Bradyrhizobium bacteria colonize the host plant’s root system and cause the roots to form nodules to house the bacteria. The bacteria then begin to fix the nitrogen required by the plant. Access to the fixed nitrogen allows the plant to produce leaves fortified with nitrogen that can be recycled throughout the plant. This allows the plant to increase photosynthetic capacity, which in turn yields nitrogen-rich seed.

Vetch - Vicia sp. with Rhizobium colonies clearly seen as nodules on the plant roots
I'll be writing in the near future on how to integrate nitrogen fixing plants into your plant communities in order to make the most of this biological source of fertility.

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 Balkan Ecology Project Bio-Nursery 

We offer a range of plants and seeds for permaculture and forest gardens from our plant nursery including a new range of fruit and nut cultivars well suited to natural gardens as well as Nitrogen fixing plants. Delivery to all over Europe available from Nov - March.

Want to learn how to create regenerative landscapes?  Join us this summer for our Regenerative Landscape Design Course.