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Botanical Blog

Your Cup of Tea Explained: Phytochemistry

Guest Post by Abby Wagner, Production & Education Assistant, Bridget’s Botanicals

Have you ever walked outside and began to notice vibrant colors and smells you have yet to have noticed before? With the Summer Solistice having just passed, we are well into the blooming season and experiencing aromas of the natural world. Have you ever thought: Why is it that some flowers smell so delightful while others, not so much? Why do I feel good after smelling roses or chamomile? Do you ever wonder if these particular colors or smells represent something deeper in the botanic world? Me too, especially since we have all been stuck inside and I feel like a kid again when I have the opportunity to go outside. With these questions I find that are commonly swirling around, let’s explore a bit and unlock the truth about plants.

For more than 5,000 years humans have been using our plant allies to help aid, support and nourish our bodies. Just like the questions I posed above, our ancestors asked the same things. They didn’t have modern day science to rely on, so instead, through curiosity, personal experience with trial and error, and passed down generational wisdom, they learned how to communicate with plants.

No, it’s not the same style of vocal communication we use with other humans and/ or animals. Instead they learned the language of plants, how to read them and understand what their colors meant, what their smell meant, what their taste indicated, and they studied how other animals interacted with their surrounding flora. Through this, homo sapiens have evolved with our plant relatives forming a beautiful, harmonious relationship.

We are evolving with our environment, which is more deeply understood as our knowledge through studying our allies has helped advance us as individuals. Herbalism and alternative medicine is vastly growing as our knowledge and progression with plant medicine strengthens.

Fast forward to today, we now have scientific studies, instruments and processes to gain a closer inside look at exactly what’s going on from a scientific lens. So, let’s take a deeper look into plants, their constituents, also known as Phytochemistry, and how they interact generally within our own unique body systems.

What is phytochemistry?

Phytochemistry is the study of the biologically active compounds within individual plants. Moreover, Phytochemistry aims to answer two major questions: What is the chemical composition of plants? In addition to how does this information relate to its processes within the human body and chemical phenomena?

You probably are thinking to yourself, chemistry with plants? Yes, exactly that, it’s the magical combination and intersection of chemistry and botany, the star player in the crucial role of understanding how plants function through a scientific lens. These chemical compounds present in plants are then isolated and its molecular structure is determined, which in turn allows scientists to study its properties.

Why is phytochemistry important?

One may be thinking to themselves, yes, this process and major component (star player, if you will) sound central to combining plants, but why else is phytochemistry important? 

Well to be a star player there are many roles that one needs to take on. For example, unlocking and understanding how plants function not only in nature, but within our body systems as well. I know it may feel bizarre to grasp, but many plants produce chemicals to defend themselves or make themselves more attractive to herbivores and pollinators. And, in the same way, they produce various chemicals that can account for causing certain reactions within us. 

It doesn’t stop there, different constituents can be found within the leaves, bark, stem, flower, roots and seeds and at varying concentrations. Depending on your desired effect, the extraction methods will also differ. 

Therefore, understanding what chemicals are being released can and has helped scientists apply it to our pharmaceutical world. How incredible to see and experience now three worlds colliding …Chemistry, Botany and Biology! To better understand how phytochemistry is used in the development of herbal and pharmacological medicine, let’s look at Chamomile.

A Journey with Chamomile

Your walk comes to an end as the sun begins to set and the weather begins to cool off for the evening. You head straight to your cupboard to see what type of teas you have. Chamomile tea immediately pops out at you. You begin to think about what benefits that cup may have for you. Come to find out; Chamomile is one of the most famous and ancient medicinal herbs on the market. Mainly used for inflammation support, alleviation from muscles spasm including those from menstrual cramps, and is best known for its relaxing subtle nervine effects. Chamomile’s capabilities based on it’s chemistry extend beyond that if you look even further…

Overall, there are over 120 biologically active chemicals found within. The dried flower alone contains many terpenoids and flavonoids, which are groups of  phytochemicals that have been studied for quite some time beneficial for their antioxidant like properties. Aqueous extracts, such as in tea form, dried herb steeped in water, have been found to extract high concentrations of apigenin-7-O-glucoside and lower concentrations of apigenin. Both of these compounds seem to be the responsible players that help to sooth muscle spasms, give the plant astringency and promote expectorant effects.

Alcohol extractions, such as tinctures, have been found to contain high levels of chamazulene and bisabolol. Chamazulene and bisabolol are very unstable unless preserved in alcohol. Because of this, chamomile tincture works to soothe the gastrointestinal tract and help ease your nervous system from the inside out.

Lastly, essential oil extractions of chamomile have been found to contain higher percentages of the volatile oils, terpenoids α-bisabolol and its oxide azulenes including chamazulene and acetylene derivatives. These phytochemicals are known to relieve anxiety and be wonderful allies to support general depression when the vapors are inhaled.

As our wonderful plant ally, Chamomile, has shown us, herbs pack a powerful yet soothing and nurturing punch within their delicate fragrant tiny but mighty flowers. Just like discovering new smells, sights and flavors on your walk, you can discover and unlock the secrets behind each herb and the best ways to extract medicine when you take a closer look. If you were looking for another reason to go outside or activity to introduce, this is it! Go for a walk and see what you can discover as you stop and smell the roses!

Information sourced from:

Singh, O., Khanam, Z., Misra, N., & Srivastava, M. K. (2011). Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla L.): an overview. Pharmacognosy reviews, 5(9), 82.

Srivastava, J. K., Shankar, E., & Gupta, S. (2010). Chamomile: a herbal medicine of the past with a bright future. Molecular medicine reports, 3(6), 895-901.