An article by Ashley Walker
© copyright 2016
Dyer’s Chamomile or Golden Marguerite (Cota tinctoria also known as Anthemis tinctoria) is described as a hardy but weak perennial because it usually dies in the late summer of its second year. It is a sprawling daisy-type plant, growing from one to two feet high. The leaves are feathery and often look blue-green. It originates from Southern, Eastern and Central Europe. The fragrant flowers last a long time (two to three weeks) and are not bleached by direct sunlight. Incidentally this is a good way of assessing just how light fast the dye from flowers can be.
There are numerous sub-species, hybrids and garden varieties e.g.
“Grallagh Gold”, A yellow orange hybrid of Cota tinctoria and Cota sancti-johannis
“Kelwayii”, Deep yellow petals
“Charme”, Yellow petals
“E.C Buxton”, Pale yellow petals
“Wargrave variety”, Pale yellow petals
“Sauce Hollandaise”, A hybrid of Cota Tinctoria and Cota punctata. White with yellow centre
“Suzanna Mitchell”. White petals
I have only grown the unnamed variety of Dyer’s Chamomile (sourced over 8 years ago from Suffolk Herbs, now King’s Seeds), so I cannot comment on the quantity or quality of dyestuff produced by these named varieties. This is an experiment waiting to be done! My guess is that probably all produce some dye and that “Kelwayii” may be the best for the dye garden as it has completely yellow, large flowers and will self-seed if the conditions are right.
I usually grow Dyer’s Chamomile from seed which I saved from the previous year’s flowers. Its seeds have a good shelf life of three or more years if kept in dry cool storage. The small seeds should be sown thinly in seed trays from early April. They germinate easily and can be planted out when large enough to handle. The plants are hardy so can be planted before the last frost. Cuttings can be taken and will root readily – indeed this is the only way to propagate the hybrid varieties. If you have excess seedlings don’t discard them. If regularly watered, they can be kept for at least a year without flowering. Restricting their roots arrests their development but does not prevent them from springing into action when planted out. There are few plants that can be mistreated in this way, but chard is another plant with the same properties.
Dyer’s Chamomile will also self-seed but the tiny seedlings usually get eaten by slugs. After growing the plant for several years now, I notice there are an increasing number of self-seeded plants in the garden.
Pests and maintenance
For a good display, the seedlings should be planted closely (about six to eight inches apart) in a mass or as a border around a vegetable or flower bed. Close planting will also help to keep the weeds at bay. The plants will grow in all types of soil including poor soils low in nutrients. The plants benefit from some fertiliser so it is probably best to crop rotate, growing as a second crop after heavily fertilised Woad or Japanese Indigo. My seedlings need protection against slugs and snails. These pests can easily eat a plant faster than it can grow, with a tendency to munch on a particular plant until it is completely eaten, while nearby plants may remain untouched. I use organically approved slug pellets until the plants are big enough to fend for themselves. This can take quite some time (two to three months). When in full flower the slugs often climb up the stems and chew through the flower stalks, but the damage is usually small. The plants can withstand drought but regular watering in hot dry weather will ensure rapid growth and a good harvest.
The first year plants come into bloom from August and flower until late September. Towards the end of Autumn the plants start to look straggly and untidy. If the plants are cut back close to the ground before the flowering finishes, in September, they will produce some new growth before the growing season ends, which helps the plants to overwinter. In the second year the plants will flower early, from June to August, In both the first and the second flowering seasons, regular picking of flower heads will encourage new flowers to bud.
Harvest and Storage
We harvest the flowers every two to three weeks. When the flowers first open they are quite small but increase in size and weight, so we try to only pick the more mature flowers. Once harvested, we dry them in a herb dryer and keep them in storage jars. Drying usually takes several hours and then it is best to leave the dryer switched off overnight before giving it an additional hour the next day. If the flowers are stored even very slightly damp they can become mouldy. It usually takes two or more harvests to fill one large storage jar, which provides enough dyestuff for a 10 litre dye bath. The stems and leaves of the plant also provide some dyestuff, so we sometimes cut the plants back at the end of the season and dry these too.
A word of warning about storing Chamomile flowers in poorly sealed containers. The mature flower heads contain a lot of nutritious seed material. One year we stored mature dry plants in paper sacks inside snap-top plastic storage boxes. But this attracted the attention of “Pantry” or “Larder” beetles which caused an infestation! We now only store dried flowers in fully airtight containers.
Seeds can be obtained from the old flower heads which have lost their colour and petals. These can be picked and allowed to dry in the sun or left on the plants until dry. The second year plants, having flowered first, will have ripe seeds by August. If you are growing a named variety it is likely that over a few years of seed saving the plants will revert to the normal wild type, so may not be as decorative as the original plants but will still produce plenty of dyestuff. Separating out the seeds from the chaff is done by rubbing the dried flower heads to release the seed and then shaking in a tray while blowing the chaff gently out.
The seeds, though small, will collect at the bottom of the tray.
If you are growing several varieties of chamomile be aware that the plants will readily cross-pollinate. If you want to keep the variety true it’s best to keep them in very well separated beds.