Pineapple Weed (Wild Chamomile): A Taste of Home—Foraging

Pineapple weed or Wild Chamomile, growing on compact earth by the side of the Rotary Trail, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When I was a little girl growing up in Granby, in the Eastern Townships of Québec, I helped my German mother collect some ground weed that grew on the edges of roads and paths. It seemed to prefer the hard packed pavement-like soils of road edges where nothing else, except the odd plantain, grew. She called it Chamomile. My mother wasn’t in Germany anymore, but this North American ‘chamomile’ native would do just fine for her. She dried the sprigs and used the flowerheads to make a wonderful subtle floral tea that tasted aromatically sweet with the mild aroma of chamomile and a strong hint of pineapple taste. She often gave it to me when I had a cold or upset stomach (from eating too many wild apples or rhubarb from the garden). I found it a soothing, calming drink and to this day associate it with my kind-hearted mother.

Pineapple weeds on side of the Rotary Trail, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I grew up thinking that this wonderful little roadside weed was chamomile. Even when the young son of a friend of mine out west challenged me by calling it pineapple weed, I vehemently challenged him; my own mother—a botanist and gardener—wouldn’t have steered me wrong. It turns out that both my friend’s son and my mother were right; this common native plant of Northwestern North America is called ‘wild chamomile’, though it is more commonly known as pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea). It is in fact a close relative of the true German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), native to Europe and used commercially throughout the world for soothing teas. The flowers and leaves of pineapple weed smell almost identical to German Chamomile, with a pineapple undertone. Hence its other name: ‘wild chamomile’. Incidentally, the word chamomile comes from the Greek words chamos (ground), because it grows low to the ground, and melos (apple) because of the apple-like scent of its blossoms.

Pineapple weed on the side of the Rotary Trail, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Pineapple weed flowers beside Canadian nickel for scale (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Pineapple weed is easy to identify: frilly leaves, petal-less yellow-green cone-shaped flowers and diminutive size; and compacted soil as habitat (e.g. highly trafficked areas, such as driveways, parking lots, paths and trails). This tough plant seems to not only survive regular trampling and compact soils; it seems to thrive in them. Botanist John Hutchinson wrote, “the more it is trodden on the better it seems to thrive.”

Looking down at the diminutive wild chamomile, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I recall reading about the tough oak tree, which tends to grow as a solitary tree in habitats that other tree species can’t. “Oaks are made of stern stuff,” says forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees. The wood of the oak resists insect and fungal attack because of its high tannin content. Its bark is strong and coarse, easily withstanding outer wounds, such as lightning strikes. Wohlleben found them growing in places no other tree would. The advantage of this hardscrabble existence is the lack of competition from other trees, such as the successfully competitive beech tree. The oak’s thick outer bark is rough and robust compared with the smooth skin of the beech. When provided with more ideal conditions, the beech out-competes the oak in the race for more light by achieving a higher crown. But “whereas beeches last barely more than two hundred years outside the cozy atmosphere of their native forests, oaks growing near old farmyards or out in pastures easily live for more than five hundred,” writes Wohlleben. So, perhaps the pineapple weed is the ‘oak’ of the forb world.

Outer whole view and median longitudinal section of compound flowerhead of pineapple weed, showing receptacle, florets (each containing united petals or corolla and achene) and bracts (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Wild Chamomile Life Cycle & Reproduction

Pineapple weed (or wild chamomile) is an annual herb that belongs to the family Asteraceae and is also called a ‘rayless chamomile’ because it only has disk florets–no ray florets, like the German chamomile. The cone-shaped flowerhead contains densely packed yellowish-green corollas of disk florets. Each floret is made up of a corolla of fused petals that sit on a fleshy cone-shaped fleshy receptacle. The seeds, attached to the receptacle, are enclosed in an oblong light brown fruit or achene. The seeds are gelatinous when wet and stick to feet or fur of animals, helping them disperse. Seeds also spread by water.

Pineapple weed (wild chamomile) on the side of the Rotary Trail, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Field of wild chamomile on a trail in Boundary Bay Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Foraging for Pineapple Weed

It’s easy to forage pineapple weed because it grows in so many places where we walk and play. About the pineapple weed, Colleen of Grow Forage Cook Ferment writes, “One aspect about foraging that I absolutely love is when I discover a plant that I’ve seen for years, since childhood even, is edible and medicinal.”

While both flowers and leaves are edible, the leaves (particularly after the flowers emerge) are bitter.

Medicinal uses of pineapple weed are identical to that of true chamomile. As a tea, it acts as a carminative, antispasmodic, and mild sedative. In Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, Peter Del Tredici writes, “A tea made from the leaves has been used in traditional medicine for stomach aches and colds.” Colleen adds that it is good for general relaxation and to promote sleep as well as an excellent digestive aid. Ashley at Practical Self Reliance tells us that it can be used for flatulence, menstrual cramps and as a wash for sores and itchy conditions. It can also be used as a mild pain reliever.

Pineapple weed cookies (image by Gather Victoria)

Most people use pineapple weed in a tea, but Daniella at Gather Victoria has used them to make pineapple weed cookies. Leda Meredith makes a pineapple weed cordial. Devon at Nittygrittylife makes a wonderful pineapple weed & red clover jam.

Pineapple weed and red clover jam (image by Nittygrittylife)
Pineapple weed flower heads in a bowl wait for tea-making (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Making Pineapple Weed Tea

I wandered down to the trail in front of the house and found lots of pineapple weed growing on the compact soil at its edge. I snipped several sprigs into a bag and rinsed, then cut off the flowerheads and placed them fresh into a tea pot (you can also dry them, but you don’t have to.) I then poured boiling water on the flowerheads and let the tea steep for 5-7 minutes.

Pineapple weed flower heads with carafe of hot water and tea set (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Pouring the boiled water into the pot with pineapple weed flowerheads (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Checking the steeping tea (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Pouring the pineapple weed tea (photo by Nina Munteanu)

My naturalist friend Merridy offered her Grandmother’s lovely tea set for the tea along with tasty butter tarts from Doo Doo’s Bakery. When it came time to pour the tea, it was the colour of hay on a late summer day and had the sweet fragrance of pineapple. The pineapple taste lingered in the tea and I was instantly transported to my childhood home.

This was a taste of home.

Merridy savouring her cup of pineapple weed tea (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Thinking of commercial chamomile teas that I’d had over the years, I initially thought I might wish to add honey to my drink like Awkward Botany did in their tea. But once I took a sip, I knew I didn’t need to. It was already sufficiently sweet and I refused to spoil the subtle flavours and aromas of this delicate tea.

I think that part of the reason for its delicate sweet taste is that I only used the flower heads; no sepals and no leaves. Ashley at Practical Self Reliance talks about her first impression of pineapple weed: bitter and thoroughly unpleasant. Then her little baby boy showed her how to forage: only eat the blossoms; no leaf or stem. Ashley suggests cutting the tops of the flower buds off the base, completely removing them from the bitter green sepals, to prevent any bitterness. That’s what I did and it worked for me! I was left with a truly heavenly tea.  

Pineapple weed on the side of the Rotary Trail, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
The pineapple weed flowers are one of the ladybug’s favourite; she collects nectar and pollen from florets on the flowerhead, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Munteanu, Nina. 2019. “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 199pp.    

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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