By Cindy Schumacher
The Northwest Blade, Eureka, McPherson County, S.D.
When she was a first grader, Judy Hooff lived with her grandparents during the school year. She recalled her Grandma Opp introduced her to chamomile tea, which grew in her garden. She picked the flowers, dried them on newspapers, and stored the chamomile in mason jars. “Grandma thought chamomile tea was a cure-all for just about anything that ailed me,” said Hooff. “Tea compresses were applied to my eyes if I had pinkeye, or she used it as a tea if I had a tummy ache.” Hooff recalled that adding a spoonful of honey to the tea was always very soothing for her.
Hooff says she felt strongly about preserving her grandmother’s tea, which was the same strain of chamomile her ancestors brought with them from Germany and Russia when the immigrated to America. “I’ve been told women had sewn chamomile and vermouth seeds into the hems of their coats and dresses before their departure,” Hooff explained. “I’m fairly certain the seeds would have been confiscated upon their arrival to America.”
In the mid-80’s, Hooff decided she would like more information about her grandmother’s chamomile tea, so she visited the Stash Tea Company in northwest Portland and was greeted by Tea Master Steven Smith. “After explaining my reason for being there, he asked to examine the tea,” explained Hooff. “I watched him analyze the seeds under a microscope in his laboratory, and he then brewed a cup of tea and took a sip. He stated it was the purest chamomile he’d tasted.” Hooff said Smith had sources for chamomile from multiple regions throughout the world but claimed her tea far surpassed what was available to them. His last comment to her was, “Whatever you decide to do with your family’s chamomile, don’t ever throw away the dry seeds in the bottom of that mayonnaise jar – they’re alive and well.”
On a visit to Eureka 40 after moving away, Hooff found chamomile flowers growing where her grandparents’ house had been. “Chamomile was everywhere, and these seeds were from my grandmother’s garden,” Hooff rearked. Even though most of the farms she remembers as a child are gone, she found chamomile still thriving around the foundation where a house once stood. “I was determined to bring dried chamomile back to Portland.” She planted seeds in her yard in Portland but was unsuccessful due to the moist northwestern climate.
Judy was born in Eureka, the daughter of Alvin and Edna (Helfenstein) Opp, who used to own and operate Opp’s Recreation. She moved with her family to Portland, Oregon, when she was in the sixth grade. Her grandparents were Christina (Neuharth) and Christian Opp and Gottfried and Eva Helfenstein. She has one first cousin living in the Eureka area, David Opp, and numerous second cousins, including Glenn and Sandy Opp and Louis Opp.
Almost a million cups of chamomile tea are consumed every day. Chamomile is an herb, but Germans from Russia aren’t the first to use chamomile for medicinal purposes. It is native to Europe, Africa, and Asia, and Greeks, Romans and Egyptians have considered the plant sacred for thousands of years. In the 16th and 17th centuries, doctors prescribed it for intermittent fevers. It was used in plaster form, ointments, pouches, and medicinal baths. The chamomile oil is used in medicines, cosmetics, and food products. The flower extract and essential oil have anti-inflammatory spasmolytic (relief of muscle spasm), and they have antiseptic, sedative, and ulcer protecting properties. It is also used in perfumes and flavoring, and the dried flowers improve the flavor and nutritional value of soups and salads.