Chamomile First Harvest

It’s the beginning of June and it’s time to harvest some chamomile as it’s grown and bloomed beautifully. Dozens of flowers held over the spicy apple scented foliage have lost their petals while dozens more hang onto them.

Chamomile in full bloom.
Chamomile in full bloom. Photo taken 13 May 2012.

Rain was plentiful this past week and that may have ruined this crop of flowers for tea. We’ll see if the flower stems upright themselves with the sun – if it comes out today here’s what I’ll do:

Cut the flower heads off with a sharp pairs of scissors and collect the cut flowers in a brown paper lunch bag. Indoors, spread the flower tops in a single layer, as much as possible, on brown paper-lined cookie sheets. It might be helpful to shake or jiggle the cookie sheets to turn the flowers for even drying.

Wax paper could be used instead of brown paper. We’ll use wax paper to cover the chamomile overnight. The next day the flowers should appear more shriveled than the previous evening. Shake them lightly and allow to sit open to the air for the day and cover again at night.

After 3-4 days the flowers won’t appreciably change appearance, so the bulk of the moisture would be evaporated at that point. To be sure that the harvest is totally dry before storing, the flowers will be dried for a week before being transferred to a large mason jar with a holey lid that allows for further drying.

The amount of time it takes to fully dry chamomile for tea will depend on your specific conditions, including the prevailing weather and condition of the herbs to dry. For instance, were the flowers still damp from the morning dew when they were harvested (they shouldn‘t be) or is your location very humid? In both cases the herbs will take longer to dry because they’re starting with more moisture.

Take note: Dry herbs with air movement. Use the shade outdoors with a breeze. Don’t dry herbs in the sun as that can bake some of the essence right out of the plant material. If indoors, use a fan to move the air gently.

How do you know it it’s dry enough? Guess! My rough estimate is like the comment above, where the appearance of the plant material doesn’t change shape or color from one day to the next. As moisture is removed from the plant the leaves and petals wilt into twisted, skinny shapes and the brightness of colors fade into muted shades.

When the colors have faded and the leaves feel dry to the touch, it’s safe to transfer the herbs to ventilated storage containers. We like to use mason jars because we always have some around the place for our canning adventures, like making elderberry jelly. The lids can be lightly closed to allow further moisture release.

Chamomile Plants Survived a Mild Winter

German chamomile plants that were grown from seed last year have survived the mild winter. Last year around the middle of May chamomile seeds were sown directly outdoors. The very small seeds were sprinkled on the soil and tamped down. Other chamomile seeds that were planted in pots indoors didn’t survive.

The seeds of chamomile, Chamomile boldegold also known as Matricaria recutita and Matricaria chamomilla, are so small that thousands of them were held inside a 1 x 2 inch plastic zip-bag that was itself inside of a labeled seed packet. Surely, the plastic bag was necessary to keep the tiny seeds from falling out of the standard seed packet or paper envelope.

Chamomile boldegold seeds.
Chamomile boldegold seeds.

(Click photo to see a larger image.)

By the way we were totally happy with the seeds we’ve purchase from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds.

The instructions indicated that germination is aided by freezing conditions, which may explain why only two plants grew from the pinches of seeds that were sprinkled in late Spring. Flowers that were allowed to drop on the ground last year should contribute to a larger crop this year. If you’re going to try to sow chamomile seeds indoors, put the seeds in the freezer overnight for more germination success.

The bright green foliage is bipinnate, where the leaflets themselves have leaflets. The segments that make up the leaflets are very narrow. Leaf stems of chamomile are round, but hollow. Our mild weather probably had something to do with the chamomile plants surviving the winter. Most sources claim this plant to be an annual, but under the right conditions chamomile is a perennial.

Chamomile leaves re-growing from last year in front of the tulips. Photo taken 30 Mar 2012.
Chamomile leaves re-growing from last year in front of the tulips. Photo taken 30 Mar 2012.

Chamomile is a fragrant little plant. The leaves have the smell of pineapple and the flowers smell like apples. The herbal tea we make from the flowers is gently fragrant of green apples.

Flowers are like small daisies, composites with white ray flowers and yellow disc flowers in the center. The disc forms a dome in maturing chamomile blooms.

The whole plant seems to appreciate cooler weather. The scorching heat of last summer made the plants grow very slowly. These chamomile plants were still producing flowers in the cool autumn days until frost halted their activity.

Flowering chamomile in the autumn.
Flowering chamomile in the autumn. Photo taken 11 Oct 2011.

Chamomile is native to Europe, but it’s now naturalized nearly everywhere else. In the United States it’s said to be found growing along old fence rows and in fields. We have it growing near the house because we planted it there. I haven’t seen it in the wild, yet, but I’m curious if others have? If so, leave a comment and let us all know!