I am spending a summer afternoon at my grandmother’s in my favorite manner–stretched out on the grass, reading a book. Absentmindedly, my eyes glued to the page, I pick a small flower from a patch in front of me and bring it to my nose. In that instant, I forget about the book, and the only thing capturing my attention is the poignantly familiar aroma of chamomile, of bitter honey and green apple.
The reason chamomile, a simple, ubiquitous flower, puts me under its spell so quickly is that the herb used to be a favorite cure-all remedy in our household during my childhood. It was used in tisanes to help me sleep, lotions to soothe rashes or hair rinses. It’s the smell of summer in the countryside, and when my great-grandmother was alive, at this time of summer we picked baskets of chamomile and dried them in the shade. These days we don’t bother anymore, and my grandmother is happy just to buy the ready-made chamomile teas from the pharmacy. But since I have nothing but time and plenty of chamomile around me, I find an old wicker basket and gather a few handfuls of flowers. Spread out in a thin layer, they look like a polka dot extravaganza, and the scent intensified by the sun is unexpectedly lush.
My childhood recollections aside, I have grown to love chamomile (or camomile as it is sometimes spelled) in my perfumery work for its ability to add a warm touch to fragrances. There are two types of chamomile used in perfumery, Roman and German chamomile varieties. Roman chamomile has a sweet, delicately spicy note, and while its effect peters out quickly, it makes for an interesting top note in masculine fragrances. German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is the one usually sold for tea and tisane blends, and in perfumes, it gives an intriguing smoky floral, apple-like nuance. It shimmers in the top notes, runs like a subtle leitmotif through the heart and lingers well into the drydown.
An unexpectedly wonderful pairing is that of chamomile and rose, and it’s the one explored in perfumes like Perfumer’s Workshop Tea Rose, Frédéric Malle Une Rose, Serge Lutens Sa Majesté la Rose, Penhaligon’s Elizabethan Rose, Parfums de Rosine Roseberry, and Parfums de Nicolaï Rose Intense. The smoky bitterness gives a richer dimension to the sweet, honeyed rose, while rose tempers the herbal edge of chamomile.
Chamomile is also well-suited for dark, moody blends, where its character becomes more lighthearted. It’s a chameleon of a note. For instance, Comme des Garçons Avignon uses the herbal warmth of chamomile to boost an accord of incense and woods. In Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew, it joins bergamot to add more luminosity to the heavy, dense composition of amber and balsams. In Clinique Aromatics Elixir, chamomile flirts with the dark rose, but it also extends the green note deeper into the drydown.
Masculine fragrances, especially in the chypre or fougere families, can make much use of the chamomile’s smoky, floral and fruity nuances. Tom Ford for Men Extreme weaves it through the dry woods of its composition, where chamomile offers a bridge from the spicy lemony top note to the rum and patchouli drydown. Houbigant Fougère Royale layers it with lavender and other herbs for a vibrant opening. Lancôme Balafre is another classical, by-the-book fougère, and it also uses chamomile for a memorable warm effect.
One of my chamomile inflected favorites is Gucci by Gucci, a dark, decadent blend. Chamomile holds its own alongside all of the lush and opulent notes like frangipani, patchouli and musk. The intro where the chamomile plays off its apple nuance against tart guava takes off the cloying edge, especially once Gucci shifts into its praline and honey embellished drydown.
If you would like to dry chamomile for tea, select a patch away from the road. Snip off the flower heads, a task for which sharp scissors are handy, and spread them out in an even layer on paper. Direct sunlight destroys the aroma, so pick a shady, well-ventilated spot. Remember to toss the flowers once a day until they are completely dry. I store all of my herbs in tightly sealed tea containers.
Chamomile tea has a delicately smoky, bittersweet flavor, and it’s an acquired taste, but if you like a hint of bitterness, it mixes well with rose petals and lavender. Add a touch of vanilla extract to round out the blend, and you will have your own unique composition in a tea cup. Doctors don’t recommend drinking chamomile tea during pregnancy, and if you have special health conditions, seek medical advice first.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin