Saturday, May 24, 2014

Saturday Spotlight - Chamomile

Chamomile has been springing up all over my garden this year. It is a ready volunteer if you allow it (or make the mistake of allowing it) to go to seed. I first grew a small patch of it back in 2010 (I used a packet of Bodegold Chamomile from Renee's Garden Seeds) and harvested most of the flowers to dry for tea. I allowed the final blossoms to mature into seed heads that year and I haven't had to purchase any seeds since then. Normally I scatter some seeds or toss old plants with mature seed heads into a part of the garden where I would like the plants to grow the next year. Last year I had plants springing up around much of the garden but mostly around one bed. I didn't bother to harvest any flowers and I didn't pull the plants when they started to produce seeds. Oops, that was a mistake. When I finally pulled the plants the seeds scattered EVERYWHERE. This winter that one bed had hundreds, maybe thousands of seedlings popping up around my alliums. I weeded and weeded and they kept popping up. Chamomile seeds need light to germinate so every time I pulled some plants or disturbed the soil it would bring more seeds to the surface and then the weeding started all over again. I resorted to laying sheets of newspaper between the rows of onions and garlic and the weeding job was slashed to a minimum.

Now, four months later, the few plants that I allowed to grow are in full bloom. The plants in the foreground are growing right along the edge of the bed and the ones beyond are taking up about 1 1/2 square feet. That's multiple plants that are tied together to a stake to keep them from flopping around too much. Given enough room and fertility, one plant can branch out and get to be quite big, but I usually let a few grow together in one spot. They are also growing in the pathway along the edge of the bed as you can see below. Since taking these photos the other day I've cut some of them down and harvested the blossoms that were ready. Soon I'll be removing the rest of the plants that are in the bed but I'll leave the plants in the pathway because they attract a lot of beneficial insects.

I love chamomile tea but have had to buy it for the past year because I was too lazy to harvest any from my garden last year. I was especially motivated to harvest my own this year when I noticed how much I was paying for a box of tea bags and the actual amount of tea in each bag.

What a cute image on the box, hmmm? It looks like some charming old farmhouse somewhere in Europe. Well, the tea is actually grown in Egypt and Mexico, but regardless of where it was grown, my motivation to harvest my own was greatly increased when I thought of what it took to get this .9 ounces of tea to my pantry. Not only has it travelled quite a distance and been through a lot of processing, but think of the packaging involved - tea bags, box, inner wrapper in the box, outer wrapper on the box - it's just so wasteful. This brand is actually proud of the fact that it doesn't add a string and label to each bag. Well, I guess that does save some packaging. And they also don't enclose each separate tea bag in an additional wrapper, which is more than I can say for other brands I've tried. But that's not even why I chose this brand, I chose it because they put a lot more chamomile in each bag than the other brands that were available.

Look at this, the jar contains the first round of dried chamomile blossoms that I've harvested and dried. It's equal in weight to all the tea in the box. Not only have I saved a few bucks, but there's a lot less junk to throw away (ok, I do compost my tea bags and recycle the box so less waste there). But, I also know that my tea is really fresh, I read somewhere that the volatile oils in chamomile blossoms dissipate after only 6 months, and who knows how long it took for that tea to get to my pantry. 

Drying chamomile is oh so easy, at least in my climate. I just lay the fresh cut blossoms out on a basket tray and leave them at room temperature for about a week. Every once in a while I give them a toss, or not if I forget, they seem to dry just fine. Just be sure to lay them out in one layer, don't pile them up. 

Harvesting chamomile, on the other hand, is rather tedious. I cut each blossom individually with a small pair of snippers so that there is no stem attached. I've read that some people cut with stems attached and then trim the stems off later. Either way it's a PITA. I did see that Johnny's has a special chamomile harvester that is something like a box with a comb attached, just brush it through the blooming plants, but it seems to me that you would be getting a lot of buds that aren't ready to harvest with that method. The optimal time to harvest chamomile is when the white ray petals have fully opened (they start off standing upright and then are a bit small before they fully open), but before they droop downward. Beware though when you check your chamomile blossoms, the white ray petals droop downward from evening to early morning, go out too early or too late and all the flowers may look like they are past their prime. I've found that harvesting about once a week works well, it takes a bit more than a week for the flowers to open up and then start to fade.

Chamomile blossoms ready to harvest.
Immature blossoms and one ready to harvest.
Chamomile blossoms early in the morning with mature ray petals folded downward.

I'm not sure if this was a honey bee or some sort of native bee, but it did a very thorough job of collecting pollen as I watched. But not all insects that are drawn to chamomile blossoms are desirable, do you see that out-of-focus speck on one of the blossoms to the right, I figured out recently that those are adult carpet beetles (click on the link to see a photo and more information), not something that you want to bring into your home. Carpet beetle larvae feed on a host of things in your home such as woolens and paper. In the wild they are often times found in places like old bird's nests where they feed on old feathers and such things. The adults feed on pollen and nectar. When I harvest my chamomile blossoms these days I am careful to flick the beetles off of the flowers before I harvest them.

Even if you don't like chamomile tea it's worth growing them for their happy looking blossoms. One thing to be aware of though, if you are allergic to ragweed and it's relatives then you will want to avoid chamomile, it's a relative and may cause a reaction. As to its reputed sleep inducing qualities, I have to say that it has no effect on me, but then I'm a tough case, it takes some serious prescription sleep aids to put a dent in my insomnia.

Here's a recent basketful of tedious snipping that dried down to another .9 ounces of tea.

I like to brew a quart pot of tea with about 3 grams of whole dried blossoms. The first cup is consumed hot and the rest is refrigerated. Chamomile tea is good both hot and cold. I'm not a sweet tea drinker but I've found that I like a dash of cream in my chamomile tea, either hot or cold. When I want a change of pace I add a few freshly snipped leaves from my lemon verbena bush (in season) to the teapot or I slice up a couple of lemongrass bulbs, or add both. Whatever way I prepare it, I like it strong so I let it steep for 15 minutes. And I don't forget to preheat that teapot with some boiling water first.

Tea anyone?


  1. I used to grow chamomile and still get them volunteering in the garden. I quit though as I am allergic to ragweed. Though I've never had a reaction to chamomile. Maybe subconsciously I really quit because I was tired of harvesting them. It is such a chore. I looked at the chamomile harvester years back and it was so expensive I couldn't fathom buying it.

  2. I'm one of those who likes the look of the flowers, but detests the tea! I understand that it is a good relaxant and helps you to sleep, but I don't like the smell or the taste of it. Your post certainly makes it plain how much effort needs to go into this product when done at the amateur level.


  3. Beautiful flowers!
    chamomile was on of my favorite self-seeded herb I grew in South Carolina. It was one of the first herbs to show her face with the coming of spring. I am happy to know that a friend of mine is growing chamomile, here in the Caribbean. Hopefully with the coming of the rain season I can collect a plant. Chamomile lemonade was on of my favorite drink.

  4. I wish I loved chamomile because in rainy years, it grows rampant along the edges of the holding beds in the canyon below me. But, drinking it gives me a splitting headache. I do use it as an antifungal in seed starting, though it makes my hands itch like mad when I work with it. I've assumed I was allergic to it, but I've never had a reaction to ragweed. Interesting. It looks beautiful in your garden.


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