Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

I assume that if you’ve joined us again this week, you’ve been enjoying the discussions regarding plants for your own home grown herbal teas. Today we will continue our exploration of this vast topic and we’ll kick things off with a look at what is probably the world’s best known tea herb.

For gardeners considering the idea of growing their own tea herbs, chamomile is a terrific plant to start with. Not only is chamomile very easy to grow, it also is considered to have one of the more pleasant flavours in the world of herbal teas. Add to this the notion that chamomile may have numerous health benefits and it clearly becomes another of those plants that ought to be more widely cultivated.

Before we begin our look at chamomile, we need to decide which chamomile we are interested in. There are several plants that are referred to as chamomile but of these, German chamomile and Roman chamomile are the two that are most widely grown for teas. Roman chamomile is a perennial plant that is less commonly grown in North America while German chamomile is an annual and is the “tea” plant usually grown in the New World.

The perennial Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a ground cover that does not get very tall, reaching a mere few centimeters in height. While the Roman chamomile has similar flavours and uses to the more commonly grown German chamomile, it is known to produce a much smaller harvest of blossoms. Couple that with the fact that Roman chamomile is only borderline hardy to zone 5 and you have a pretty good case for going straight to the German chamomile.

German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), while only an annual plant, is a vigorous grower and is quite capable of producing incredible harvests even in our northern gardens. The easiest way to get started with German chamomile is with seed. Early in the spring, about six to eight weeks before the last frost date, seeds of German chamomile can be planted in seed trays of sterile seed starting mix. Chamomile seeds need light to germinate so the seeds should just be pressed into the surface of the soil and not buried. Gently moisten the seeds with a spritzer and then seal the trays with cellophane or place a humidity dome over them. Place the seed tray in a warm spot, or on a seedling heat mat if you have one, and watch them closely. Keep the seeds from dying out but simultaneously, don’t over-water. The tiny seeds should germinate within days and immediately need to be given as much light as possible. Once the danger of frost has passed, harden off your chamomile seedlings for a few days and then they are ready to be transplanted into the garden. Chamomile loves full sun but don’t panic if you need to put them in a spot that gets some late day shade. Chamomile plants actually appreciate a bit of shade during the hottest parts of the summer. While chamomile is happiest in a slightly acidic sandy soil, it will grow virtually anywhere. In the drier portions of the year you may need a little supplemental water but other than that your chamomile should be essentially trouble free. If you want to amend the soil with a little compost at planting time your young plants will appreciate the effort but there is no need to fertilize chamomile beyond that as they are very light feeders. Chamomile is also perfectly happy living in containers so even gardeners who have only a little balcony space in which to grow a few special plants are able to grow enough chamomile to make plenty of pots of tea. Fortunately, other than the occasional cluster of aphids, chamomile plants are essentially pest and disease free. By mid summer you should notice a profusion of small daisy-like blossoms on your chamomile plants. These should be harvested when they are fully open. The more you harvest, the more your chamomile plant should bloom. If you miss any flower heads and your chamomile plants are able to bring them to maturity and produce seeds, then their production will drop right off. It’s always a good idea to let a few late season blossoms go to seed as those seeds will “volunteer” the following spring and save you the trouble of starting new plants. With very little effort you can easily establish a self sustaining chamomile patch for an endless supply of delicious herbal tea. The flower heads that you harvest from your chamomile plants can be used fresh and whole to brew a nice tea or they can be dried and stored for future use.

Interestingly the name chamomile is derived from the Greek term meaning “ground apple” Chamomile does indeed smell very much like apples.

Chamomile has long had a reputation for being a terrific sleep aid. It is also credited with soothing stomach upsets and ulcers. The bottom line, however, is that chamomile simply tastes delicious.