Our Own Wild Chamomile

Chamomile is one of our favorite herbs here in the States, valued for generations as a cure for everything from skin problems to insomnia. But what most of us in the US simply refer to as “chamomile” turns out to be two distinct species, Roman/English chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) and German chamomile (Matricaria retutica). Both, obviously, are Old World varieties. And while we consume these foreign species in massive amounts, most of us are unaware of our own native species of chamomile, Matricaria discoidea.

Matricaria discoidea  flowers lack the white petals typical of other chamomiles. Photo credit: Walter Siegmund

Matricaria discoidea flowers lack the white petals typical of other chamomiles. Photo credit: Walter Siegmund

But if you’re a gardener, or have a lawn, or a stone driveway, or cracks in your pavement, or an empty lot nearby, you probably see Matricaria discoidea all the time. And you might know it by its common name, pineapple weed (a.k.a. disc mayweed). But I think terming this beautiful plant a weed is a tad harsh. It’s a low-growing annual, maxing-out at around a foot tall, with feathery leaves (like other chamomiles) and yellow flowers. And just as you might expect from it’s name, this “weed,” especially its flowers, gives off a beautiful pineapple odor when crushed.

Thinking back, this might have been the first wild food I was ever taught to identify. I found a colossal colony in a gravel patch and was told by my grandmother, who grew up eating groundhogs and eels during the great depression, that I had found wild chamomile. I wasn’t such a fan of the taste back then, but I was happy to provide her with a never-ending supply of the plant.

First off, let’s consider how pineapple weed compares to its better-known relatives, German and English chamomile. Overall, the plant looks very similar with one obvious difference: pineapple weed lacks the white petals that grace the flowers of other kinds of chamomile. Pineapple weed grows low to the ground, as does English chamomile, while German chamomile grows up to two feet in height. The pineapple scent of Matricaria discoidea is unique, while other sorts of chamomile smell like, well… chamomile.

German chamomile - note the similar leaves and flowers (minus the petals).

German chamomile - note the similar leaves and flowers (minus the petals).

Many chamomiles thrive in well-drained, relatively poorer soils. This explains pineapple weed’s tendency to thrust itself out of sidewalk cracks and take over patches of stones. Pineapple weed, in my experience, grows anywhere from very sunny spots to partial shade. It’s one of the first wild herbs to pop up in the spring, and one of the last to finally die back in the fall. Its tolerance of such a range of soil conditions and temperatures makes pineapple weed an easy herb for foragers to find. However, I must admit, I much prefer the flavor of the young springtime flowers to older, late season blooms.  

We in the Northeast have Lewis and Clark to thank for pineapple weed. The plant is actually native in the Northwest, but during their famous expedition, Lewis and Clark “discovered” (Indigenous People knew the plant, of course) Matricaria discoidea, and the eastward spread of the plant began. The plant now grows wild in most of the United States and Canada (Texas, Florida, and a few other southern states excepted).

The research on pineapple weed's medicinal uses is very, very sparse. It's a weed, after all, right? What could it be any good for?

The feathery leaves of pineapple weed resemble the more well-known German and Roman chamomiles. 

The feathery leaves of pineapple weed resemble the more well-known German and Roman chamomiles. 

Anyone searching the web, interested in the medicinal properties of Matricaria discoidea will soon find many references to "an Estonian study." But try as I might, I have not been able to find this study for myself. It's quite possible the study was published in the Estonian language, in which case it would make sense that I would never find it, even if it was freely available online.

This mysterious "Estonian study" supposedly found pineapple weed to be about as effective as German chamomile in relieving smooth muscle spasms while being perfectly safe to consume.

However, it is worthwhile to note that pineapple weed and German/Roman chamomile have long histories of being used to treat many of the same symptoms.

Traditional medicinal uses for the herb are well documented, and seem to often focus on gastrointestinal health. A tea brewed from pineapple weed's fragrant flowers is supposed to help an upset stomach, decrease eye inflammation, ease discomfort associated with menstruation, tame stomach spasms, and soothe sore throats. Here's a fascinating list documenting Native American uses of the plant, including, again, as a tea to help ease stomach pain and menstrual cramps, as an aphrodisiac, and even as a bug repellent.  

So, in lieu of more thorough medicinal research, we might consider it somewhere between possible and likely that pineapple weed can help stomach cramps. With many cultures on different continents, separated by wide oceans, across a span of many years all using the plant for this purpose, it seems probable that they were on to something. And since pineapple weed hasn't been recorded to have any adverse effects, it's at very least safe to try. 

So, how to prepare pineapple weed tea? Take a tablespoon or so of young, fresh flowers and steep in a mug of freshly boiled water for 10-12 minutes. I like to cover the steeping tea to limit the evaporation of oils. This will render a delicious, fruity, floral tea. Dried flowers can be used as well, but I think they lose a good bit of flavor. The leaves, which also have a history of folk-medicinal use, are also perfect for tea in my opinion, but apparently some people don't like the taste. 

This is the time of year when foraging starts to really wind down, and the cravings for spring's first flavorful herbs and greens will soon set in. And to me, the delightful, exuberant taste of pineapple weed is first among those flavors. It bursts onto the scene with it's yellow fruity flowers like a joyful proclamation that summer is right around the corner. So even though it might be too late to taste the best that our own wild chamomile has to offer now... just wait.

Some pineapple weed buds. These were harvested just a few days ago (in November), so they're a little past their prime. 

Some pineapple weed buds. These were harvested just a few days ago (in November), so they're a little past their prime.