By C. Darren Butler and Ann Clary
GardenZeus receives commissions for purchases made through links in this post. There is no additional cost to you.
How would you describe the ideal garden plant?
The answer varies by gardener. Some may value plants that are easy to grow, tolerate neglect and need minimal maintenance to be highly productive. Others might prefer plants that don’t need constant watering, that bloom profusely while producing abundant harvest over a long period of time, and whose yields have many culinary and other uses. Or maybe you’re more interested in a plant that’s relatively free of diseases, has few insect pests, and attracts pollinator insects. Would all of this be possible in a single plant?
Not only is the answer yes, but the list above is but a portion of the many positive qualities of German Chamomile.
German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is a member of the Asteraceae family (asters and daisies). It produces bright flowers of about one inch in diameter that look like small daisies, with a yellow center and white petals. Leaves are narrow and feathery, almost fernlike. It’s an annual with a long blooming period, especially when blooms are harvested regularly, but it often self-seeds, and if a portion of flowers are allowed to go to seed, it can grow perpetually in the same area.
Most gardeners and herbal-tea enthusiasts agree that German Chamomile blossoms have superior flavor and “sweetness” compared to other chamomiles, and particularly to Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), the other chamomile variety grown most commonly for tea. Other reasons that German Chamomile is preferred for tea include reliability with blooming and large production of blossoms.
Individual plants may reach 2 to 3 feet high and about 1.5 to 2 feet wide. Chamomile can appear somewhat weedy and after bloom begins, it may give the effect of overgrown wildflowers.
German Chamomile is unfussy about soil and watering, and generally has few problems with diseases and pest insects, other than occasional attention from aphids and other sucking insects which are easily washed off flowers and leaves with a strong stream of water when the infestation is caught early. See Aphids: Minimize Populations Using Organic Controls.
Start Chamomile seeds during frost free periods with warm daytime temperatures. German Chamomile can be started indoors, but it’s easy to start outdoors. GardenZeus recommends that you water the soil or bed where you intend to plant chamomile starting 2-3 weeks in advance to germinate and remove weed seedlings.
Choose a sunny or partly shaded area. German Chamomile tolerates part shade but produces best with several hours of sun per day. It’s hardy and grows well year-round in California areas with mild or no frosts and moderate summer temperatures. It thrives in cool-to-warm weather, and tolerates heat up to temperatures in the 90s. It needs extra water to remain productive during warm-to-hot weather, and suffers in hot summer temperatures in the 90s to 100°F and above. For spring planting hot-summer areas, plant in part shade or bright shade to extend harvest.
Chamomile a good companion to most garden vegetables because it attracts pollinators including honey bees, and other beneficial insects such as ladybugs and predatory wasps.
Add minimal organic matter and work into the top several inches of soil. German Chamomile doesn’t need rich soil, and may be less productive in soil with high levels of nutrients and organize matter. It benefits and produces better with a degree of fertility, including sufficient phosphorous and potassium, and with slightly acidic pH.
Chamomile seeds need light to germinate. Water soil where seeds will be planted, then scatter seeds at the rate of a dozen or more per square foot and press seeds into the surface of soil. Don’t cover seeds, and be cautious with watering during germination to avoid displacing or washing away seeds.
Chamomile germinates best at temperatures of about 70-75°F but seems to germinate across a large temperature range. Soil should be kept slightly moist but not wet while seeds are germinating. Germination requires about 1 to 3 weeks, and may continue or be scattered over a longer period of time. Once established, plants are drought tolerant and need only occasional watering but bloom and produce best with sufficient water.
Thin seedlings to 1 plant every 6 to 12 inches in rows that are 12 to 24 inches apart, or about 2 plants per square foot.
German Chamomile requires minimal maintenance beyond basic gardening tasks such as weeding and mulching. Use fine organic mulch such as pine needles, fine or shredded bark mulch, or weed-free lawn clippings. Check plants every 2-3 days to catch infestations of aphids or other sucking insects early. Provide extra water during warm-to-hot weather.
Be cautious with fertilizers and amendments. Compost with moderate nitrogen is preferable to fertilizers. If provided with more than minimal nitrogen, plants may grow profusely without producing many blooms. GardenZeus recommends light fertilizing with compost and composted manures when plants are a few weeks old, and again every month or two while plants are blooming.
Blooms are produced as early as about 4 to 5 weeks after germination. Harvest blooms or deadhead frequently to encourage more production. Once harvest is sufficient, consider allowing a few blooms here and there to go to seed, which will often self-sow to renew your bed of Chamomile.
Harvest blossoms immediately after they are fully open, just as petals come to horizontal. Quality of blossoms is best when harvested mornings after dew has dried but before flowers are in direct sun.
Use a specialized tool called a berry rake or chamomile rake for rapid, efficient harvesting. As an alternative but more time-consuming method, snip individual blossoms with small, sharp scissors.
To optimize quality for herbal tea and culinary use, harvest blossoms with the least possible amount of stem, or cull out stem pieces before use or while drying. Fresh petals are edible and make an attractive addition to salads.
The most popular use of Chamomile flowers is for a soothing tea, which can be made from fresh or dry flowers. Use about 2-3 tablespoons of fresh flowers or about 1 tablespoon of dried flowers (or to taste) per cup of water for a tea infusion.
Chamomile flowers can be used fresh, but those gardeners blessed with an abundance should consider preserving their bounty for later use. See Drying Fresh Herbs and Flowers. To dry and use chamomile in floral arrangements, harvest stems and flowers and hang them upside down to dry.
Growing chamomile or planning to grow chamomile? Your may already have a head start on your holiday gift-giving. See Gifts From Your Garden: Grow Your Own Herbal Teas