If you’ve read The Tale of Peter Rabbit, you’ll know that Mrs. Rabbit gave Peter chamomile tea to settle his stomach after he’d eaten too many cabbages in Mr. McGregor’s garden! But chamomile tea isn’t only good for rabbits, it’s good for humans too, and has been used for centuries as a calming agent and anti-inflammatory, and to treat colds. It’s also a pretty plant to have in your garden.
Most people grow chamomile for their flowers. So, it stands to reason that you will harvest chamomile once it has bloomed and the flowers are open. But, more specifically, the chamomile blossoms should be fully open and harvested before the petals start to droop backward.
Because there are two different types of chamomile, we are going to discuss the differences between them before we talk about when and how to harvest chamomile plants.
How Can You Tell If a Chamomile Is Wild?
There are two types of chamomile, Roman or garden chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) and German or wild chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla).
The dried chamomile flowers of both types are used for herbal teas, though wild chamomile is tastier and more popular. As Susan Mahr, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Horticulture Division of Extension, points out, garden chamomile has a much more bitter taste.
Both types of chamomile plants belong to the daisy family (Asteraceae) and have similar-looking flower heads. But there are distinct differences.
If you know what to look for, you will be able to tell the difference between the wild and garden types of chamomile.
German chamomile is native to parts of southern and eastern Europe and western Asia.
Although the scientific name of German chamomile is Matricaria chamomilla, several synonyms are sometimes used, which can be confusing. For instance, for German chamomile Matricaria recutita and Chamomilla recutita are both used.
Even more confusing is the fact that it is closely related to Matricaria discoidea, the pineapple weed, which is also called wild chamomile, probably because it is a common roadside weed.
Wild German chamomile has an aromatic apple-like smell while the pineapple weed smells like pineapples when the flowers are crushed. The flowers of both wild types are edible.
The difference between these two Matricaria plants lies in the flowers. German chamomile has distinct daisy petals, while pineapple weed doesn’t.
German chamomile is an annual plant that produces single flowers on each branched stem that can reach up to 2 feet (60 cm) tall. It has thin, shallow roots that spread quickly.
Also called Roman and English chamomile, garden chamomile is a perennial plant that is a shorter species that spreads. It is often grown as a ground cover or even in place of a grass lawn.
It is native to parts of western Europe and is found in the south of the United Kingdom.
The leaves of garden chamomile are very different from those of German or wild chamomile. They have finely divided, double pinnate leaves that are narrow and only about 3 inches (76 mm) long.
The flowers of the two types are also quite different as English chamomile blossoms have very few petals. Also, if you have access to the two types, cut the stem where it connects to the flower. Garden chamomile will have a solid flower receptacle while the wild German type will be hollow.
According to the British Wildlife Trusts organization, Chamaemelum nobile is classified as vulnerable on the Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain. It is very seldom found growing wild.
How Do You Know When Your Chamomile Is Ready to Harvest?
Even though you can use chamomile leaves to make tea, it’s more common to use the daisy-like flower. The fresh flower heads are also a great edible garnish for salads.
German chamomile blossoms usually start to appear in early summer. They will continue to produce a prolific number of flowers until the yellow-brown chamomile seeds start to ripen in late summer.
To get the best quality flowers, wait until they are near full bloom. Ideally, you will see more white petals than yellow centers, because the petals will have stretched out straight.
An important factor to remember is that if you harvest chamomile too early, the essential oils in the plants won’t be fully developed. This directly affects the flavor of the flowers.
If you leave them too long, the flowers will start to wither and dry and there will be fewer essential oils in the plants. When the petals start to curl backward, you will know that you are running out of time.
How to Harvest Chamomile?
Growing chamomile is easy. Harvesting chamomile flowers is even easier, although picking them manually tends to be time-intensive!
You can harvest both types of chamomile the same way. Just be aware that Roman chamomile produces fewer flowers, so don’t expect the same kinds of yields.
Basically, all you do is to snip the stems, or pinch them with the tips of your fingers, just below the flowers. Another way of harvesting chamomile flowers is to rake them with your fingers and then gently pull the flower heads off the stem.
German chamomile will usually flower continuously throughout the summer and you can use the hand-raking or snipping methods successfully for multiple, ongoing harvests.
Whichever route you decide to take, remember that it’s always best to harvest chamomile in the morning when any dew has dried, but before it gets too hot. If you want to wash the flowers, rather than doing this after you have picked them, give them a light hosing down with clean water the day before you harvest – so that they have time to dry.
By harvesting chamomile flowers manually, it’s relatively easy to leave the flowers that aren’t in full bloom on the plant for the next harvest.
As the plants produce more and more flowers, they accumulate more essential oils, and farmers often grow chamomile specifically for their essential oils. But, of course, it’s the oil that gives the flowers their flavor too.
What to Do with Chamomile Flowers
You can use chamomile flowers fresh in salads or to make herbal tea. Otherwise, you can dry the chamomile flowers and use the dried flowers to make tea.
You can store dried chamomile flowers for up to six months, although they tend to lose flavor the older they get. Alternatively, freeze the flowers into ice cubes and then defrost as much as you want when you need them.
The flowers will only stay fresh for a couple of days, so pick small quantities if you’re using them fresh for tea or salad. Otherwise, dry and store chamomile for later use.
How to Harvest Chamomile Seeds
If you don’t pick all the flowers, the flower heads will dry out and you can harvest the chamomile seeds. To do this, snip off the flowers and then spread them out in a warm spot out of the sun.
When the flower heads are completely dried out, rub your hands over the heads so that seeds fall into a bowl. If you store them in a sealed container in a cool cupboard or storeroom, they will remain viable for three or four years.
What Happens If You Don’t Harvest Chamomile?
If you don’t harvest chamomile the flowers will go to seed. Unless you already have some dried chamomile flowers, you won’t get to make any more chamomile tea.
Your choice then is to either harvest the seeds and plant them later or simply to leave them and let the plant self-seed itself.
Does Chamomile Grow Back Every Year?
German chamomile is an annual plant, but it reseeds itself so effectively, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s a perennial. If you don’t want it to grow back every year, you’ll need to deadhead all your chamomile flowers before they go to seed.
Roman chamomile, on the other hand, is a perennial, and it keeps growing from the same roots year after year.
Can You Use the Leaves of Chamomile?
Not as commonly used as dried chamomile flowers, the leaves of chamomile plants can also be used to make herbal tea. All you do is pour boiling water over a handful of torn leaves and let them steep for about 10 minutes before straining.
Lots of people prefer chamomile tea made from the leaves chilled. Try this by sweetening the tea with a little bit of apple juice and serving over ice blocks.
If you decide to use the leaves of your chamomile, make sure they are bright green and not wilted.
Like chamomile blossoms, chamomile leaves may also be added to salads.
Dried chamomile flowers are fabulous for making herbal tea but can be used in salads and as a garnish for other dishes too. The leaves are also suitable for making herbal tea.
But to get the best flavor from chamomile plants, you need to know when to harvest it.
These gardening tips tell you when and how to pick chamomile and how to make the best of fresh and dried chamomile flowers. Even if you love drinking green tea or even coffee, our tips might just persuade you to try delicious, healthy homegrown chamomile tea.
Why not grow some chamomile at home and then give it a try?