Chamomile may be the easiest herb on earth to grow. Most herbs are pretty simple – plant, prune, contain. Chamomile, with its delicate, apple-like aroma, self-seeds year after year and also happens to be a great host for beneficial insects.
Years ago, I bought a pot of German Chamomile at (of all places) a grocery store, thinking it would be nice to dry a little to make tea from over the winter. Definitely an impulse buy, but well worth the few dollars. I planted the chamomile in my herb garden, but it has since migrated throughout the well-drained soil of my raised garden beds. Now, chamomile grows liberally in every one of my garden beds to one degree or another, but has really settled in among my blueberry bushes, where I have managed to contain it.
Varieties of Chamomile and its uses
Chamomile is an ancient herb and has been used for centuries for culinary and medicinal use – historians have found notes of its use in ancient Egyptian medicinal texts. It was also used in ancient times as a “strewing” herb – cut and thrown on floors, as it gave off its sweet apple aroma when walked on.
Chamomile is a member of the Asteraceae/Compositae family and there are 2 common varieties: Roman Chamomile and German Chamomile, with a number of individual cultivars of each variety. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information , chamomile has been used to treat many human ailments, including hay fever, inflammation, muscle spasms, menstrual disorders, insomnia, ulcers, wounds, gastrointestinal disorders, rheumatic pain, eye infections and other maladies. Personally, I find chamomile tea very relaxing and drink it almost nightly during the winter – it makes me sleep like a baby. I’ve also used the same tea (unsweetened) as an eye wash to clear irritated eyes. An essential oil is frequently distilled from chamomile flowers and is used in cosmetics and perfume, and as flavoring in beverages and confections.
Roman chamomile and German chamomile are quite different plants in their growth habits. Roman chamomile is a perennial which grows 3-6″ tall and forms a spreading mat of foliage. Bloom time for the flowers is summer through fall. German chamomile likes weather on the cool side, is an annual which grows up to 36″ tall and blooms in early summer. There are no serious disease or pest problems in either variety.
Chamomile attracts beneficial insects to your garden
It’s no secret that many varieties of insects can cause damage to your garden. One of the most efficient ways to control these damaging pests is to cultivate plants which attract beneficial insects – wasps, flies, beetles and other species which eat or otherwise kill the unwanted insects. Among the species that chamomile hosts are Lady Beetles, parasitic wasps and hover flies, which together consume enormous quantities of aphids, leafhoppers, thrips, corn borers, and many other pests.
How to grow chamomile
Chamomile can be grown from seed or small starter plants. Plant it in most well-drained soils in either full sun or part shade, but it grows best in full sun and sandy soils. Ultimately, it likes the soil a little bit on the dry side and I’ve seen its growth slow during very wet periods. During the growing season, it spreads by creeping stems which root as they grow. New plants arise the following season from seeds produced by the flower heads.
Harvest chamomile when the flower petals are white and the centers bright yellow. Time of year will depend on which variety you grow, but early morning or late evening are the best times to pick the flowers, as the oils in the flowers are more concentrated when the weather is cool. Additionally, wait a day or two after rain to harvest, as chamomile holds onto moisture for quite awhile.
Harvesting German or Roman Chamomile is somewhat labor intensive. The flowers grow atop rather brittle stems and when harvesting, one can’t help but get stems along with flowers. You can find chamomile rakes online, but they tend to be rather expensive and don’t appear to save that much time for the home gardener (field production is always a different issue). Personally, I find it relaxing to pull the individual flowers off of each stem on a beautiful late spring morning, throw them into a brown bag as I go and then “clean” the flowers from the stem.
Most herbs are typically washed after harvesting, but that will damage chamomile flowers and may soak them to the point that they will be difficult or impossible to dry quickly. If insects are inhabiting the flowers, let your harvest sit outdoors for an afternoon on a porch or shady area – the insects will find their way out of the bag quickly, in my experience.
Tip: Once harvested, let the chamomile flower stems lay in the garden bed, as they make an excellent light mulch and quickly decompose, providing excellent organic matter for the soil.
Drying and storing chamomile
I allow the chamomile flowers to dry in a cut-off (shortened) brown shopping bag for 1-2 weeks. It’s easy to tell when the flowers have dried sufficiently, as they crumble into a powder and are dry to the touch when you rub them between your hands. Store dried chamomile in a tea tin (you can never save too many tea tins).