Chamomile is a hardy perennial with feathery, fragrant leaves and white, daisy-type flowers, loved by bees and other pollinators. It's easy and inexpensive to grow. It contains the essential oil chamazulene, which is found to have anti-allergy and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as being antiseptic, antibacterial and calming – it may even lower blood pressure. It's been used as an herbal medicine for centuries, with evidence that the ancient Egyptians used chamomile to cure the sick, as well as in the process of embalming dead bodies. Today, it's largely used as a soothing tea, with most tea drinkers buying dried chamomile in tea bags from the supermarket.
The most common species grown for chamomile tea are German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and Roman chamomile, also known as Russian and English chamomile, (Chamaemelum nobile). While similar in appearance, German chamomile is a tall-growing annual, reaching heights of around 60cm, while Roman chamomile is a low-growing, spreading perennial, reaching heights of just 30cm. Both have identical growing requirements. German chamomile has a slightly higher concentration of chamazulene, making it a more attractive option for a relaxing drink.
While both the leaves and flowers are fragrant, it's usually the flowers that are used to make tea.
Chamomile isn't just used for tea – Chamaemelum nobile 'Treneague', a non-flowering, dwarf cultivar of Roman chamomile, is used as an alternative to grass lawns.
How to grow chamomile
Both German and Roman chamomile grow in similar conditions – they need well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. Once established, both species are drought tolerant and need watering only during times of drought.
Where to grow chamomile
Grow chamomile in the border, either at the front or the middle, depending on which variety you're growing. You can also grow chamomile in pots or in a dedicated herb garden.
How to plant chamomile
Chamomile is easy to grow from seed – sow direct in a prepared seedbed in autumn, or indoors from March, scattering the seed over the surface of moist, peat-free seed compost. Chamomile needs light to germinate, so cover with a thin layer of vermiculite or don't cover at all. Pot up indoor-grown seedlings into individual pots and harden off before planting out after all risk of frost has passed.
How to care for chamomile
Chamomile plants need very little care. Once established they are fairly drought-tolerant. Water pot-grown plants regularly, ensuring there is sufficient drainage so the roots are not sitting in waterlogged compost.
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Trim chamomile regularly to maintain bushy growth and prevent plants from becoming leggy.
How to harvest chamomile flowers
Pick chamomile flowers as and when you need to. Picking regularly will encourage more flowers to form – if you don't want to use the flowers straight away, you can dry them by laying them out on a baking tray or similar, and keeping them in a warm, dry spot, out of sunlight, for a week or two. Once dried, store them in an air-tight jar in a cool, dark spot such as a cupboard.
How to make chamomile tea
Chamomile tea is said to aid digestion and calm the nervous system. It's easy to make using your own harvested chamomile flowers, which you can use fresh or dried. If using fresh, simply harvest a good handful of flowers, rinse them and pat try.
While it's possible to simply place chamomile flowers in the bottom of a mug and add hot water, bear in mind that there are lots of bits to a chamomile flower and you may end up with them in your mouth. Therefore, if you have a tea infuser or empty tea bag, it's best to place the flowers in there, and make your tea without the addition of bits. Either way, simply pour hot water over the flowers, steep for five minutes and then remove. Your chamomile tea will be ready to drink.
Advice on buying chamomile
- Before buying, choose between German and Roman chamomiles, which grow to different heights
- Always follow the instructions on the seed packet, and check pot-grown plants for signs of pests or disease