Herb production: Chamomile – way more than a pretty flower


By Digital team | 22 October 2018
chamomile
Photo: Wilma den Hartigh

German chamomile is seen as a weed in the Mediterranean, but in other parts of the world it can boost farm earnings.

CHOOSING A CULTIVAR

  • German chamomile is considered a weed in the Mediterranean, but here it is producing good-quality essential oil.
  • Not all varieties are suitable for high-quality oil production.
  • German chamomile is a seasonal crop, grown from fine, powder-like seed.
  • It’s sown just before winter and starts to sprout when spring arrives.
  • The seed can be mixed with a little sand to achieve a better spread rate.
  • Seed should be planted in well-drained soil and kept moist.
  • To improve oil yield, the crop should not be irrigated before harvesting.

As the climate and soil type determine which crop is best suited to a particular area, so, too, the crop should be suitable for the people farming it.

HARVESTING

  • The 10 ha farm produces 4 tons of dry biomass and 4 kg oil per hectare.
  • The plant has 3 flowerings within a 9-week period, requiring 10 casual workers per day for harvesting and weeding.
  • 2 people per hectare can maintain the crop.

DISTILLING

  • German chamomile produces blue oil that is primarily extracted from the flowers.
  • Moisture is removed by drying the flowers in the sun before distilling is started.
  • This method is cost-effective, and tests show it produces better quality oil.
  • It’s advisable not to use “wet” material in distilling, because this reduces the quantity of biomass and wastes inputs.
  • Oil is usually extracted from the flowers, but certain markets – the aromatherapy industry in particular – require blended oils.
  • For this market, leaves are harvested and distilled along with the flowers.
  • Foreign crops should never be harvested with chamomile, as this will produce “adulterated oil” that won’t fetch a good market price.

MARKETS

The essential oil market is growing internationally and chamomile essential oil is popular because of its calming properties.

It’s also widely used by the pharmaceutical industry.

Certain bath products and toothpastes already contain essential oils.

WHAT ARE ESSENTIAL OILS?

Essential oils are natural mixtures of fragrant compounds found in plants. These compounds are extracted by distillation and are sold predominantly to the international fragrance, cosmetic, flavouring and aromatherapy markets.

They are extracted from plants such as rose geranium, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm, peppermint, German chamomile and even Khakibos.

  • This article was written by Wilma den Hartigh and first appeared in Farming SA.