Matricaria recutita , Matricaria chamomilla, or Chamomilla recutita
Learn to grow German chamomile from seed and enjoy its soothing properties, its rich aroma, and its benefits to your other garden plants.
Why Grow Chamomile in Your Garden?
Not only is chamomile a useful herb in teas and oils, but it is also quite beautiful. The small daisy-like flowers are a lovely way to brighten up any corner of your herb or flower garden.
German chamomile’s sweet apple scent and soothing, sleep-inducing properties make it very popular in tea. It’s also used in rinses for sore eyes and rubs for sore muscles.
German chamomile may also be a useful companion plant. These small delicate plants take some coddling in the beginning, but once established they can thrive in poor soil with minimal attention.
German chamomile has a better flavor and stronger soothing properties than its perennial relative Roman chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile.
Growing German Chamomile Plants in the Garden
German chamomile is an annual which must be started from seed each year. You can grow your own or they are often available in specialty garden centers. It thrives in full sun.
German chamomile can grow well even in poor, sandy soil, though it will need more frequent watering if there’s not much organic matter in the soil to help retain water. It doesn’t thrive in soggy soil: plant it in a place with good drainage.
German chamomile is not frost-hardy. Direct seed it around or after the last frost date in spring, or set seedlings out after all danger of frost is passed. It also doesn’t like the summer heat and may get leggy in hot weather. If your growing season is long and hot, start chamomile early so you can harvest blossoms before the worst heat.
The book Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs says that chamomile grown in poor soil will have more fragrant and potent flowers. So the good news is you don’t need to fuss with fertilizer or soil amendments to grow this useful herb.
Growing Chamomile From Seed
German chamomile can be grown from seed. The seeds are very tiny and light, and a small puff of wind can blow them from your hand, so handle them with care when planting.
German chamomile seeds require light in order to germinate. There are two different approaches when starting tiny seeds like chamomile. Both methods work fine, so the choice is yours.
- In her Complete Book of Herbs and Spices, Sarah Garland recommends covering the seeds thinly with fine soil. Burpee says to cover them with ¼” of soil.
- The Wisconsin Extension says not to bury them at all. Instead, scatter the seeds across the surface, and gently press them down against the soil so they don’t blow away.
You can thin direct-seeded plants to twelve inches apart after they germinate if you prefer a more formal look to your chamomile patch. I’ve sown chamomile more thickly than that and not thinned it. The resulting dense clumps of entangled chamomile plants produced plenty of flowers and also effectively shaded out weeds once the plants were well grown.
Planting Seeds Indoors
If you plan ahead, you can start German chamomile indoors 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost. The Wisconsin Cooperative Extension says that larger seedlings are harder to transplant, so it might be wise to use the 6-week planting time.
Set plants out 12” apart when transplanting them to the outdoor garden.
How to Take Care of German Chamomile
Water your chamomile regularly and lightly, especially while the seeds are waiting to germinate and while the young plants are establishing themselves. Use a fine setting on your spray nozzle so that jets of water don’t dislodge the tiny seeds.
German chamomile’s roots are shallow, so your goal is neither to waterlog the soil nor to let the plants dry out. Well-established chamomile is much more forgiving about drying out than young plants are.
Growing Chamomile in Pots
Chamomile can be grown indoors in pots. Make sure that the pot you choose drains well. Clay pots work very well for this purpose. Use a lightweight medium—this might be a soil mix for succulents or potting soil cut with perlite.
Companion Planting with Chamomile
Various Cooperative Extension sites say that chamomile is a beneficial companion plant for certain vegetables. It may improve the development and flavor of cabbage-family plants (cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, etc) and also of onions.
Chamomile flowers can attract beneficial insects like predatory wasps, robber flies, and hoverflies. These insects attack some of the insects that attack your herb and vegetable plants. So you may want to try planting chamomile near garden plants that bugs love to chomp.
Harvesting German Chamomile
Pick flowers when they are open and fully fragrant. At first, the petals are closed over the centers. Then they stand out stiffly like tutus. Then they fold back around the stem. I try to pick mine at the tutu stage or early in the process of folding down.
You can either snip or pluck flowerheads. Take flowers only, without leaves or stems. Rosemary Gladstar says that running your fingers through the plant like a rake or comb, pulling off multiple heads, is more efficient than picking blossoms individually.
Since my chamomile usually has a mix of fully open and immature flowers, I harvest blossoms individually. Do what works best for you.
Flowers will be at their best if you pick them after the dew is dry but before the full heat of the day.
Storing and Using German Chamomile
Drying is the usual way to preserve German chamomile for tea. I spread mine on dehydrator trays covered with fine needlepoint canvas and let them start air-drying until I have two or three trays full. Then I finish them off in the dehydrator at low heat (95-105 F). If I don’t use the needlepoint canvas, the tiny heads shrink so much while drying that they fall through the tray slats.
You can also air dry chamomile on screens, or spread flowers on paper towels and dry them in the microwave. Consult your microwave guide for time settings for drying, since different models have quite different power levels.
Fully dry chamomile will be brittle and easy to crumble. Store dried chamomile in clean jars with tight-fitting lids, and keep the jars out of direct sunlight. Dried chamomile will keep for a year.
Dried chamomile makes a very satisfying tea if you steep it briefly in water that’s just off the boil. As it steeps longer, it will develop a bitter flavor. Rosemary Gladstar recommends steeping it for 15-20 minutes for the best soothing effects and acknowledges that this will lead to some bitter flavor. I usually steep mine for five minutes, after which the flavor is still fruity and sweet.
You can also preserve chamomile in oil. You shouldn’t eat, drink, or cook with this oil, but it goes well in bathwater or serves as a rub for aching joints or as a hair conditioner. To make chamomile oil, bruise the fresh blossoms and soak them in “a mild, tasteless oil” for several weeks in a warm place.
Growing German chamomile in the garden has many benefits. It can soothe your sore eyes and muscles, and also soothe your racing mind and help you sleep. And the sweet fruity aroma is a pleasure in itself. Plant it close to walkways or seating areas so you don’t miss out on its fragrant aroma.
The herb chamomile is beneficial to other plants in your garden. And it’s easy to grow, with just a little TLC at planting time and while the young plants establish themselves. Treat yourself and your garden to a bit of soothing sweetness.