I’ve always found the different chamomiles a bit confusing, mainly because I’ve not grown it enough myself to make the connection, and the dried herb on sale in shops is not usually identified by species. This post is my attempt to get them clear in my head. Input from anyone familiar with the plants is welcome.
A friend once gave me some dried flowers she had collected from her own plants and it made the most amazing tea. I only needed four or five flowers per cup of water, and the taste was better than any commercial chamomile I’ve had. So I’ve been on a bit of a mission to find out which chamomile it was. As it turns out the chamomiles have a confusing array of names and synonyms so it’s not just me. I’ve finally decided my friend’s tea is the German chamomile, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s not.
This is the plant:
The chamomiles are part of the Asteraceae family, which is a large family of plants with daisy-like flowers – a composite centre (the family is also called Compositae) with petals around the edge. Botanically the flowers are actually the many minute parts that make up the often yellow composite centre.
There are two main genera of chamomile: Matricaria and Anthemis. Common names in this post are the ones used in NZ references unless noted otherwise. Common names vary from country to country and even within a country – botanists, farmers, academics and herbalists can all use common names differently – so it’s always best to ID a plant by the botanical name of genus and species. Having said that, the chamomiles seem to have more than their fair share of botanical synonyms as well.
I haven’t had the chance to try this yet, but Weeds of Crops and Gardens in NZ (p 97) has this to say on the differences in the flowers between the two genera:
As with all Anthemis spp, the bristles remain on the centre after the rest has been rubbed away, whereas in all the Matricaria spp no bristles remain.
Matricaria recutita (aka M chamomilla, M suaveolens, Chamomilla chamomilla, and C recutita): German chamomile. This is an annual native to Europe and the temperate parts of Asia. It is naturalised in some places in NZ although I’ve not seen it growing wild. More commonly it’s grown as a garden herb.
Matricaria dioscoidea (aka Matricaria matricarioides, sometimes mistakenly called M discoidea): Rayless chamomile, also an annual it smells a bit like pineapple (and in some parts of the world is known as pineapple weed). According to Henriette Kress it can be used like the more well known medicinal chamomiles (both the leaf and flower). This is fortunate for us as rayless chamomile is well naturalised in NZ. ID keys are here.
Tripleurospermum inodorum (aka Matricaria maritima and M perforata): Scentless mayweed/scentless chamomile. Looks similar to Anthemis cotula (see below).
Matricaria inodora (scentless chamomile), and Matricaria suaveolens are illegitimate names.
Anthemis nobilis (aka Chamaemelum nobile) Lawn chamomile, Roman chamomile: a perennial, this is the chamomile grown for a ground cover. The medicinal herb does flower, but I gather there is a hybrid that has no flowers.
Anthemis arvensis – corn chamomile.
Anthemis cotula - stinking mayweed, stinking chamomile, mayweed. Less common in Canterbury, Otago and Southland. ID here.
Anthemis tinctoria – dyer’s chamomile
Anthemis mixta – invalid name.
Anthemis cupaniana – synonym Anthemis punctata subsp. cupaniana
I’m looking forward to things growing again and going out to hunt down the rayless chamomile.