Roman Chamomile is one of those small plants that packs a big aromatic punch. Smelling like a Jolly Rancher sour apple candy, it makes an odiferous bright green ground cover in cool summer climes. Often used in England to fill in cracks between pavers or as a path cover or even as a soft bench cover, it is sometimes referred to as English Chamomile. However, a German botanist, visiting Rome in the mid-sixteenth century, coined the term Roman Chamomile and that name was destined to stick.
The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all used and even revered Chamomile. The Egyptians compared the sunny daisy flowers to the sun and dedicated it to their sun god, Re (Ra). The Greeks gave it the name that eventually led to the word Chamomile. They called it Kamaimelon. Kamai means on the ground and melon means apple, so you get ground apple. The Romans, who probably got it by way of Britain, bathed in it, walked on it and used it medicinally.
Chamomile is a common term that is most frequently used for two distinct plants, Chamaemelum nobile (Roman Chamomile) and Matricaria recutita (German Chamomile). This tends to confuse most everyone.
Both are collected and used medicinally and for the famous cup of relaxing Chamomile tea. Both have bright, sunny, daisy-like flowers with yellow centers and white petals. Both have soft delicate foliage that is pleasingly scented (thought the scents differ slightly). With both, it is mainly the flower that is dried for medicinal use or tea.
Yet, they are botanically different and that is why they belong to different Genera. It is the parts of the flowers that separate the two. Roman Chamomile has a tiny papery bract between the florets that German Chamomile does not. Also, the cone in the center of the daisy is solid in Roman Chamomile and hollow in German Chamomile.
Roman Chamomile is three or four inch high perennial that prefers cool summers; German Chamomile is an annual that can reach two feet and can be grown almost anywhere. Roman Chamomile doesn’t really flower all that much, which is probably why more harvesting is done from the German Chamomile. German Chamomile can usually be cut a couple of times during the growing season because it takes only a few weeks to make a new crop of flowers. Leaving the last crop of flowers to go to seed will help ensure the sprouting of German Chamomile seedlings everywhere next spring. Roman Chamomile also sets seed but not so prolifically. It sometimes need to be divided and replanted after three or so years.
Roman Chamomile can be used to make a fragrant pathway or a nice aromatic surprise tucked among other garden plants. If it pushes against other plants it can get up to a foot high with bloom. It can also be mowed to the ground to keep it flat. However, it is an important beneficial insect plant so leaving those flowers on may be a better choice!
And while Chamomile is best known for its soothing medicinal properties, take note that some folks can be allergic or sensitive to Roman Chamomile. Those most susceptible are those who are allergic to members of the ragweed family.
Chamomile can be used for more than just a sweet smelling ground cover or a tasty tea. The fresh flowers can be used as a garnish. Just be sure to remove the green bitter leaves under the flowers.
The flowers and the leaves can also be used in potpourri in combination with other dried flowers.
And, there are endless combinations of tea, both hot and iced, that Chamomile can lend its unique flavor and scent to.
- Morehavens Chamomile Nursery
- Historical Cultivation and Use
- Varieties of Chamomile
- Light Conditions, Companion Plants, and Soil Quality
- Fertilization and Seed Propagation
- Pests and Other Problems
- Harvesting and Herbal Tea
- Let It Go Wild
- Gardening FAQ
- Roman Chamomile Seed As A Lawn Grass Alternative
Morehavens Chamomile Nursery
Ground Cover Herbs from Seed
By Conrad Richter
I often get asked what herbs are suited as ground covers. Customers tell me, “I hate cutting grass,” or “I like trying something completely different, and I don’t mind if my neighbours think I’m crazy to dig up my lawn.” Herbal ground covers are very different, but their pleasing leaf textures and often showy masses of colour are becoming more popular in place of grass. Being the tough little critters they are, they need next to no care once established. And if you don’t mind foliage and flowers that tickle your ankles and beyond, you can dispense with the weekly trysts with the lawnmower to keep things trim and proper.
The biggest problem with herbal lawns is the start up cost. Regrettably, some of the finest low growing herbs are only increased by cuttings or division the flowerless variety of english chamomile, Treneague, is a notable example. You need the payroll of a CEO to afford enough plants for an instant lawn. Or, you need the patience for many seasons of divide and spread to cover much ground starting with a few plants.
Fortunately there are several good choices for herbs you can grow from seed. By far the most popular is wild thyme (Thymus praecox subsp. articus), also known as mother-of-thyme. It grows 4 to 6 inches high, has masses of rose-pink flowers in July, and grows fast enough to crowd out weeds. At 110,000 seeds per ounce, the seeds are very fine, much smaller than grass seeds, so it is a good idea to mix seeds with a filler like sand to avoid dropping 90% of your seed in 10% of the area to be covered. We recommend an ounce of seed per 1000 square feet. In the kitchen wild thyme is not commonly regarded as a culinary herb in North America, but European cooks have long used it in meat dishes just like the more famous English and French thymes (Thymus vulgaris). If nothing else, wild thyme will at least drive you from drink should you dare to consumer alcohol and the leaves at the same time. The combination causes a mother-of-a-hangover!
Another popular choice for lawnless lawns is yarrow (Achillea millefolium). While its white, red or pink flowering stalks can reach a foot in height, its dense, many-divided leaves make for a cushion lawn that just invites a picnic, a snooze or other prostrate activities. I have seen yarrow used very successfully in small urban settings. especially under partial shade. If the flowers get too high, one or two runs a season with the lawnmower will keep things in check. Yarrow seeds are small and light, lighter than wild thyme. there are 175,000 seeds per ounce, and an ounce per 2500 square feet is the recommended sowing rate. Yarrow tea is insurance for colds and flus, which is a good thing if you are going to lie around in your lawn a lot.
If you don’t mind a more rangy and taller cover, Fassen’s catnip (Nepeta xfaassenii) is a good aromatic choice, growing up to 12 inches in height. Don’t worry, cats are not as enamoured by this variety as they are by the much taller growing regular catnip (Nepeta cataria). Sow an ounce per 600 square feet.
Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a good choice for warmer, sunny locales. It is a perennial, hardy to zone 6, with finely divided emerald leaves. The small daisy-like flowers are, of course, used to make the popular herbal tea. Be forewarned, there are those who insist that tea made from the Roman (sometimes also known as ‘English’) is superior to the annual German or Hungarian variety (Matricaria recutita), and there are others who argue just as strenuously the other way. As sides ten to fall along ethnic lines, we prefer to stay out of the debate! In any case, a Roman chamomile lawn is pure enchantment in many landscape settings. Again the seed are very fine 155,000 per ounce and one ounce will cover 2000 square feet. As with all seeds this small, it is crucial not to plant too deep; best simply to press the seeds, once broadcast, into the soil using a board or other object with a flat surface.
Conrad Richter is Vice-President of Richters Herbs in Goodwood, Ontario, Canada.
The first time I was introduced to chamomile flowers, I was floored.
I walked into the raised garden beds of a property where I would be working and was delighted by the array of ground cover flowers, prolifically growing vegetables, and leafy herbs. Out of the two dozen or so plants that were growing, one stood above all of the others.
A line of beautiful white flowers, two feet tall and smelling like sweet apples, grew between the onions and the cabbage. The soft foliage complemented the starspray flowers that bent over the cabbage heads with a dopey and relaxed abandon.
This was the flower for me, I remarked as I crushed the oils from the flower petals between my fingers and savored the smell that lingered. Imagine my joy when I learned that these were chamomile flowers, my favorite tea! I was enthralled and began my journey growing this delightful herb and flower.
You’ll find helpful information below about growing and harvesting this dandy flower, mostly what I’ve learned and a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way. And of course, there will be that delightful delve into the history of chamomile and its use around the world.
If you have it in the cupboard, now’s the time to heat up a cup of tea with a spoonful of honey!
Historical Cultivation and Use
Commonly known as pinhead, scented mayweed, and (my personal favorite) babuna, the latin name for this delightful flower is Matricaria chamomilla, translating to “water of youth.” It’s a plant native to central and southern Europe, although it has spread far and wide around the globe.
It was used in ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome as an herbal remedy for ailments ranging from hay fever to menstrual disorders, inflammation, insomnia, muscle spasms, gastrointestinal pain, and rheumatic pain.
More popularly, the dried and crushed flowers and leaves have been used to brew a relaxing tea, reputedly with the benefit of aiding a deep sleep and calming stomach pain. It is grown in huge volumes in modern-day Hungary, where the plant is typically exported to Germany for processing.
Varieties of Chamomile
It’s easy to confuse different types of aster with Matricaria chamomilla, but they are very different plants.
Although a variety of plants hang onto the coattails of the chamomile name, there are two true species that we’ll be examining today, German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile).
An annual plant that grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9, M. chamomilla is the plant of choice for those interested in tall-growing flowers. This variety of scented mayweed is often cultivated for its essential oils, and the aromatic flowers that go into that teabag you’re hopefully enjoying while reading this.
It reaches about two feet in height and, although an annual, is an aggressive self-seeder – so much so that you might confuse it for a perennial!
The quality of light and temperature provided are more important than the state of the soil. This is partly due to the nature of the roots of chamomile – they are shallow and just barely grip onto the top soil. That also makes M. chamomilla more sensitive to water conditions during the initial stages of growth when the plant is establishing itself.
Once it has taken root in your garden, this mayweed is drought tolerant. It typically prefers to receive about one inch of rain a week. If you don’t have one, pick up a rain gauge so you can measure that free watering from ol’ Mother Nature, so your own hose and sprinkler may be used effectively only a supplement.
M. chamomilla can be tricky to understand. Although it will grow in almost any soil condition, it will become top-heavy and floppy if the soil is too poor. If your plant ends up leaning over like a sailor sick at sea, you can stake it up with bamboo stakes and garden twine.
Unlike its German cousin, the Roman variety C. nobile is a low-growing perennial. It spreads via rhizome and will eagerly take control of a small area if left to its own devices. This is an ideal plant to use as a permanent ground cover.
Although its flowers and leaves are suitable for harvest, the plant is typically grown instead for its benefits as a ground cover. It works very well as an accent plant in containers, or as an effective living mulch to minimize weed growth in between planted rows of vegetables.
If used as an actual ground cover, it can tolerate light foot traffic. It produces fewer blooms than the German variety, but has potential uses beyond what its tall-growing cousin provides.
All varieties, however, share a few traits in common.
Light Conditions, Companion Plants, and Soil Quality
They prefer full sun but will tolerate partial sun conditions. Babuna will not fare well when temperatures are above 100 degrees fahrenheit (who does?!), and all varieties will compliment certain plants in your garden.
Plant M. chamomilla next to onions, cabbage, and mint as companion plants. Both the upright German and low-growing Roman types act as effective ground covers to minimize the development of weeds; as an added bonus, it’s a ground cover that offers tasty flowers!
Chamomile will grow just about anywhere.
All varieties do well in containers because ideal planter conditions are so close to perfect conditions: well-drained soil that is regularly watered. The low-growing Roman acts well as an accent plant while the German variety is best put into a large container where it can spread out and grow freely.
The naturally strong scent of chamomile offers resistance to many insects, and that benefit is extended to other plants growing near it.
Fertilization and Seed Propagation
If growing from seed, prepare for a fun time. It’s important to note right off the bat that transplants work far more efficiently than directly sown seeds.
Growing your chamomile seeds indoors prior to popping them into the ground is the most effective, trusted method for growth.
Start seeds 6 to 8 weeks before the expected final frost date; I always shoot for that middle ground and start seeds at 7 weeks. The seeds require light and warmth to germinate at their fullest potential, so simply pop them on top of a seed starting medium. There is no need to cover the seeds with any of the growing medium.
Jiffy Natural & Organic Seed Starter Mix, available on Amazon
Like most seeds, it’s ideal to plant a small group in each cell of a seed tray. When the seedlings reach a height of 1 to 2 inches, cut back the weakest plants so that the strongest seedling alone remains in the cell.
Chamomile specifically enjoys being placed in a sunny window, but will grow under grow lights; make sure to give the seedlings no more than 16 hours of light a day. They require a full 8 hours of “rest” from light.
Use fluorescent lights, because incandescent lighting can be too intense for young seedlings. If you place your seeds in natural light (like I do), make sure to rotate them every few days so they do not grow too far in one direction.
Fertilize seedlings when they are about 3 months old, but only use half of the recommended amount that your preferred fertilizer suggests on the label. One of the reasons I love chamomile is that it is a plant that seems to thrive on neglect. That predilection for being left alone means it has little need for fertilizer.
Roman Chamomile Seeds
If you’re going to grow your chamomile from seed, it’s always best to buy from a reputable vendor. You can find Roman chamomile available from True Leaf Market in 1/4-ounce, 1-ounce, and 4-ounce packages. And bags of German chamomile seeds in 500 milligram, 1 ounce, 4 ounce, and 1 pound sizes are available from True Leaf as well.
German Chamomile Seeds
Once transplanted, chamomile still doesn’t need much of a boost in the fertilizer department. It responds best to a springtime treatment and intermittent feeding during the growing season. Fertilizers higher in nitrogen are more beneficial; chamomile’s weak root system has little use for phosphorus in its development.
Pests and Other Problems
Although M. chamomilla is relatively carefree and tough, it attracts pests and suffers from diseases like any other plant. However, as with most plant diseases and pests, proper care and attention to watering minimizes any of these potential headaches you could encounter.
Right off the bat, if you have an allergy to ragweed or chrysanthemums, it is important to note that you could also be sensitive to chamomile.
Aphids can chomp down on chamomile.
Powdery mildew is the most common problem with scented mayweed, but it is a concern only when the weather is hot and damp for prolonged periods of time. Aphids, thrips, and mealybugs can bother M. chamomilla as well, but the plant is generally pest and problem free.
It can even be processed and turned into an effective spray to aid your other garden plants. Make a batch of tea at triple or quadruple strength, allow it to steep overnight, and use it the next day as an herbicide and aid against mildew.
Harvesting and Herbal Tea
Ah, the long awaited feature on the best part of growing chamomile.
As noted above, the German variety of scented mayweed is more suitable for harvesting for tea. The leaves tend to be more bitter, so stick to the flowers for tea. You can simply pluck off the flower heads when you’re ready for them.
The ideal time to harvest is when the flower petals begin to curl downward, instead of growing out straight as they ordinarily do. Although I’ve always allowed my flower heads to dry before using them in a tea, fresh flowers work as well. You will just need more of them.
If you’re drying the flower heads, separate them and arrange with some breathing room in between on a piece of cheesecloth or a mesh surface. It’s important to store your harvest in a cool, dry place for about a week for it to dry out. I tried using a dehydrator once, and while it worked, I felt like the end product was less than desirable.
When you’re making a cup of tea, you want to measure out two tablespoons of dried flowers per eight-ounce cup. If you are using fresh flowers, double that measurement and use four tablespoons of fresh flowers per eight-ounce cup.
Simply add the flowers into the water and allow it to steep for about 5 minutes, then pour the tea over a sieve to separate the flowers from the liquid.
You can adjust the strength of the tea by really cramming those flower heads in there for a stronger flavor, or by adding just a few if you want a milder taste. Consider adding a sprig of mint or a spoonful of honey to modify the taste to your liking.
I’m usually not a big tea drinker, but I love chamomile tea. Part of that allure is because of the personal touches I like to add. Try adding a dash of cinnamon to your tea for a punchy flavor.
When contending with a cough and sore throat, try adding four ounces of lemon juice to four ounces of chamomile tea with a tablespoon of honey. That’ll soothe your sore throat, and it tastes pretty dang good!
The tea is beneficial for relieving the pain of an upset stomach, to relieve stress, and to get a better rest. (Gardening is excellent for stress relief as well!) After the liquid has cooled, you can apply unsweetened tea directly to irritated areas of your skin.
Although I’ve never used it for this purpose, you can even rinse your hair with unsweetened tea to bring a nice shine to those locks of yours. Simply brew the tea and strain it through your hair.
Let It Go Wild
One of the hidden benefits to growing M. chamomilla is watching that flower go wild. It’s a vigorous and lively-looking plant that seems to exude measures of happiness and sunshine, even on a cloudy day. It has found its place in many of my plantings, usually tucked away as a complement to wildflowers such as aster, rudbeckia, and soldago.
It seems like everybody is a winner with this lovely white flower, be it the annual German or perennial Roman. Pollinators are enamored with it and the classic yellow-and-white color combination fits just about anywhere. Best of all, it’s easy to grow and freely offers copious amounts of soon-to-be tea.
Have you grown chamomile too, or do you still have questions about it? Give us a shout in the comments, and share your story!
Product photos via Ferry Morse/Jiffy, and True Leaf Market. Uncredited photos: .
About Matt Suwak
Matt Suwak was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. This upbringing keeps him permanently affixed to the outdoors where most of his personal time is invested in gardening, bird watching, and hiking. He presently resides in Philadelphia and works under the sun as a landscaper and gardener, and by moonlight as a writer. An incessant questioning of “Why?” affords him countless opportunities to ponder the (in)significance of the great and the small. He considers folksy adages priceless treasures and is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.
Chamomile (sometimes spelled camomile) is a medicinal herb of the Asteraceae family with many uses. There are two kinds of chamomile and their nomenclature can be confusing.
Roman chamomile (sometimes referred to as English chamomile for the chamomile lawns planted in Elizabethan England) is Chamaemelum nobile but is also inacurately refered to as Anthemis nobilis. This mat-forming perennial has a spreading habit and the brilliant, green, finely-cut, leaves grow about four inches high. Its flowers, with a daisy-like, yellow cone surrounded by white rays, are about 1 inch across and grow singly atop ten inch stems. There is also a double, cream colored chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile ‘Flore Pleno’. A flowerless variety ‘Treneague’ is usually grown as a lawn or ground cover.
Roman chamomile can be started from seeds, cuttings or by root division. It does best in a cool climate and does not tolerate hot, dry weather. It prefers full sun but will also tolerate some shade. A rich soil will produce lush leaf growth but no flowers. Roman chamomile self-sows profusely and needs to be contained by pruning.
To grow a chamomile lawn, you will need a spot where the ground rarely freezes. A sunny location is best but they will also grow in dappled shade. First clear the area of any weeds. If using ‘Treneague’, plant young plants about 4 – 8 inches apart. Keep the soil moist and do not walk on the plot for at least 10 weeks. Roman chamomile can also be started from seed. The lawn will require minimal care. Occasional weeding may be necessary and the plot can be mowed or sheared.
German chamomile is also of the Asteraceae family but a seperate genus. Called Matricaria recutita, this species is an annual and is the chamomile that is typically used to make chamomile tea. The plant can be distinguished from Roman chamomile by having multiple flowers atop divided stems (a corymb). They can also be told apart by the flower recepticle which is solid in the Roman form and hollow in the German form. The daisy-like flower heads are rather similar in the two chamomiles.
German chamomile seeds can be sown directly in the soil in early spring. Do not bury them as they need light to germinate. Young seedlings (1 or 2 inches) may be transplanted, but older ones cannot. Grow in full sun in well-drained but moist soil. The plants will flower as early as June in warmer climates and will continue to flower periodically until fall.
Either chamomile can also be grown indoors. Sow seeds on the surface of the soil in small seed starters or in a large pot (at least 12 inches) with good drainage. Place the pots in a warm location (about 70°F) and the seeds will germinate in about two weeks, Chamomile can be started at any time of the year. Keep the plants in a south-facing window or a location that get at least 4 hours of sun a day, The soil should be kept moist but not too wet. After two or three months the flowers will be ready to harvest.
Courtesy of the NYBG Plant Information Service
Roman Chamomile Seed As A Lawn Grass Alternative
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