Updated: Apr 18
If you go for a stroll around the streets of Funchal, something very peculiar will catch your attention: in the streets near the market a few women, sitting on a doorstep, sell herbs in a basket to local people, usually for medicinal purposes. Chamomile, locally known as macela or marcela, is probably the most requested herb. The question tourists have most frequently asked me is: “What are those little yellow button-like flowers women are selling in the streets?”
MACELA or MARCELA
As far I can remember macela has been used in Madeira for nervousness, digestive complaints, and to lower high blood pressure. The tea is prepared by infusion of the flower heads and, according to tradition, the number of flower buds for a cup of tea must always be in odd numbers. Three flower buds are usually enough. A decoction of the flowers is also used as a hair rinse, by blonde girls, to make their hair lighter and shinier. The decoction has anti-inflammatory properties, very effective against bacteria. Without knowing the scientific facts, by intuition, local people have chosen macela to wash their eyes to clear inflammation.
In spite of being so popular in Madeira, macela is not so commonly known in the rest of the world, as are other chamomile plants. The species used in Madeira is a perennial plant with a specific characteristic that distinguishes it from the other chamomiles – its flower heads have no petals, they look like little yellow buttons.
A quick search on the internet is enough to find information about chamomile, but the variety we call macela is more difficult to find. In books about the flora of Madeira, macela is usually identified as Chamaemelum nobile, the botanical name for Roman Chamomile. However, Roman Chamomile has petals and is propagated by seeds, while macela has no petals and, as far as I know, its seeds are sterile. I only succeeded in propagating the plant from cuttings! This fact has been puzzling me for a few years – I wonder whether it is a different species.
I have found a similar species to macela – Golden Chamomile (Matricaria aurea), native to Saudi Arabia, where it is known as ‘Babunaj’. It is one of the Arabian medicinal plants often used to treat digestive complaints, especially when the inflammation is caused by bacteria.
It is a fact that we have had a strong influence of the Arabian culture in Madeira, which is still noticeable in our cooking and folklore, and there is even a street called Rua da Mouraria (the Muslims street). Many Muslims came from North Africa to Madeira to work on sugar cane plantations, an industry that made Madeira so prosperous in the past. Our local medicine was most likely also influenced by Arabian medicine. In my opinion, our petal-less chamomile is probably an hybrid between Matricaria aurea and Chamaemelum nobile. This would certainly justify macela being a sterile plant.
The name macela refers to the apple like scent of the flower heads, since the Portuguese name for apple is ‘maçã’.
Sometimes, instead of the popular macela flowers, another plant – English Mace (Achillea ageratum) is used for the same purposes. This plant produces similar but smaller flower heads, hence its name ‘dwarf macela’.
I believe our macela shares the same chemical components of the other two most important species – Matricaria recutita (German chamomile) and Chamaemelum nobile (Roman Chamomile). Among the many chemical components of chamomile the flavonoid apigenin stands out. This chemical is one of the main reasons why chamomile is such a powerful medicinal plant.
Apigenin lowers the inflammation that precedes hypertension and affects the kidneys both as a diuretic and by making them work more efficiently. In addition, apigenin reduces pain and calms nervousness. This explains why macela is a favourite for local people in Madeira as a home medicine cure-all plant.
Other herbs such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium), parsley (Petroselinum sativum) and celery (Apium graveolens) are also good sources of apigenin. Some people say they find immediate relief from kidney complaints by drinking a tea prepared with these other herbs.
Nevertheless, when using herbs rich in apigenin, we must take into consideration that this component inhibits the liver enzymes that detoxify certain medicines such as warfarin. Therefore, people taking blood thinner medication should lower the use of apigenin rich herbs.
The oil extracted from chamomile has a bluish colour due to chamazulene, a chemical compound used in massages to soothe skin inflammation. The oil penetrates deep into the skin, exerting its anti-inflammatory effect. The same oil is also extracted from other plants such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and tansy (Tanacetum anuum).
If you are in the process of choosing plants for your garden, don’t forget Chamomile! It is both a beautiful ornamental plant and a powerful medicinal herb. In addition it brings fragrance to your garden and is beneficial to the neighboring plants.