Chamomile, before the tea

Jun 17, 2023

Once you invite chamomile in, it becomes a faithful friend. Returning year after year, at first almost undetected as their tiny seeds nestle between the soil particles and the little plants volunteer their services around the site where their mother once stood.

I haven’t intentionally sown chamomile seeds for at least five years. I have learned to trust that they will always appear in the spring as they have weathered the driest summers, wettest springs and harsh winters in recent times.

Chamomile is a low risk, high reward investment for sure. They don’t demand any real attention or nutrition, which leaves me feeling undeserving of their profusion. Some might call them intrusive in these numbers but I’m mostly grateful for their bounty.

The uses of this plant are synonymous with soothing and that is certainly why I grow them, to dry and make calming chamomile tea. Research chamomile uses and you will find numerous preparations to allievate a multitude of human ailments and strains. For me the process of growing, picking and processing the plant’s delicate flowers is just as comforting.

I set to harvesting the chamomile flowers in my garden on the morning of the warmest day of the year so far. Early on, this is perfect. The dew has evaporated, the petals are open and the sun is on my back, thawing a deep set cold from a reluctant spring. The strong, sweet scent of the oil in these little blooms can easily compete with that of my routine first coffee. Collecting them now means this is captured and saved before it would later be lost to the sun.

Chamomile flowers being picked and put into a container

There are a lot of flowers to gather, to have a worthwhile yield that will keep me supplied until this time next year, or earlier if the seasons allow. I find that the quickest way to pick and check for resident creatures in one movement is to invert the flower so I can see the underside where aphids usually hide and use my thumb and forefinger to snap the stem close to the base of the flower, dropping it in the container below. Repeat, check, snap.

I inhale deeply, feeling the relief of the summer air and taking in this plant’s gentle but mighty perfume. The calming effects of the herb begin for me right now and will last for the rest of the day. It becomes apparent to me how I’m appreciating this familiar task as if it were a brand new discovery and that the previous months’ hard graft of fixing the neglected garden is paying off. I’ve been collecting salad, mint and coriander leaves for many weeks now but this is the first big haul that will last more than one meal. It’s more than its own act. It’s looking into the future, it’s honing a skill, it’s looking after myself.

Chamomile flowers spread out in a drying rack

I’d like to have a food dehydrator for its efficiency and more predictable results but I also want to avoid more costs and energy waste. For now I use a drying rack made of netting, which is most convenient for the small amount of space I have. Spreading out the individual flowers to dry, so that no petal is touching another is pleasing. How beautiful they look in a mix of sunny or green side up, creating a pretty repeating pattern that is easy on the senses. They stay there for a week or so in a gentle warm breeze out of the sun and in a spell of no rain. Darkness would be preferable but I don’t have that option, so deep shade will do. The dried flowers look so very different but smell just as good as when they were fresh, offering a lovely olfactory echo each time I open up the jar.

Dried chamomile flowers in a jar