The Herb Garden
The joy of growing and using herbs:
by Rachel McLeod
“..... Peter was not very well during
His mother put him to bed, and made some chamomile tea
and she gave
a dose of it to Peter.”
from The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
I wonder how many of the children who have had the story of Peter Rabbit read
to them have had any idea what chamomile tea is. Do they conjure up a picture of
a nasty medicine given to Peter almost as a punishment for Peter's wild
adventures in Mr. McGregor's garden? After all Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail had
bread and milk and blackberries for supper.
Of course we all know now that far from being a punishment the chamomile tea
was going to give Peter a quiet night's sleep and a comfortable tummy the next
There are two different plants, both belong to the same plant family –
Compositae – and both have small, daisy-like, white petalled flowers with
yellow centers, both have a similar fragrance like sweet apples. A tea made from
either of the flowers is soothing, with sedative, tonic and stomachic
German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita – until relatively recently its
botanical name was Matricaria chamomilla which was much easier and is
still used in many books but taxonomists love change and this is probably more
botanically correct! ) is an annual which will self-seed freely. It grows about
15 to 30 centimeters tall and is a delicate, much branched plant covered with
flowers if grown in full sun.
The flowers should be harvested just before they are fully open. This is a
time consuming and somewhat tedious job but the tea made from the flowers is
delicious and for many people a sure recipe for a good night's sleep. It is
important to dry the small flowers very well and leave them in a paper bag for a
bit even after drying. The solid yellow centers are difficult to dry out and
will mould easily if put into an air tight container too soon.
Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) is a very useful plant in the herb
garden. Not only is it a perennial but it is low growing and forms beautiful
mats of ferny leaves. It produces fewer flowers and they are not as sweet as the
annual chamomile so it is not used as much for teas, though its medicinal
qualities are the same. The plant's low, mat-forming growth of fine, dark green
leaves make it attractive in the garden. Garden seats have been grown made of
chamomile plants and there is a chamomile lawn at Buckingham Palace. This is
said to be very soft and springy and lovely to walk on. In fact, it is said that
if you are the proud owner of a well established chamomile lawn you would be
able to throw a raw egg over the roof of your home and if it landed on the lawn
it would not break.
For many years, one of my ambitions was to grow a chamomile lawn and, if that
was not possible, then I would settle for a chamomile path.
The chamomile lawn was tried first when we carved up our lawn to renew the
septic system. I grew hundreds of small chamomile plants and spent the summer
planting them out. Chamomile is hardy so I was not worried about cold and snow
in the winter, However, in those days we all had our own backyard skating rink
and the chamomile could not survive the ice and repeated flooding and freezing.
(It is amazing that grass could!) In the spring there was a mud patch and
unanimous agreement that a chamomile lawn was not a success. However, later for
a few years, I did have a successful chamomile path in the herb garden. It
needed a lot of weeding and was rather sensitive to traffic but when our guests
walked on it the scent was wonderful.
I am still growing Roman chamomile but not as a lawn or a path. I am
delighted to see it making patches wherever it chooses and they grow larger
every year. Each summer after it has flowered it is best to cut the flower
stalks off to keep the cushiony look. There is a strain called Trenague
which does not flower at all so makes a neater groundcover but sadly I have
found this a slower grower and more liable to winterkill.
There seems to be some confusion on the spelling of chamomile or camomile
...with an H or without. The botanical spelling is definitely with an H, which
probably accounts for the small sampling I took from my herb library. Out of 15
herb books and The Tale of Peter Rabbit, eleven spelt it Chamomile,
four used Camomile, and Beatrix Potter made a fifth.
However you decide to spell it, do plant both chamomiles in your garden. They
take up little space and will reward you greatly with lovely fragrance and
pleasant teas. As well as drinking the tea you may find it useful to use on your
seedlings as it is recommended for preventing damping off.
Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in 1974.