Chamomile Stem Chemical
Answered by: Richard Alan Miller
Question from: Steve Simonson
Posted on: January 3, 2000

Is there a chemical compound in the chamomile stem (German variety, Matricaria recutita), that taints the oil quality during distillation? If so, is there any way around this during processing?

There is very distinct change in chemistries between the sweet flowerhead of the German annual variety of Chamomile and the stem. It can be separated by steam distillation, but the primary markets for this crop is as a dried flowerhead. This is the only reason why this crop is not (yet) cultivated in North America.

The perennial variety of Roman Chamomile is primarily taken for steam distillation. This means a rotary mower and vacuum pick-up is used. The oil is used in cosmetics and as a food ingredient. The flowerhead is not a sweet as the annual variety, and is not generally used as a tea ingredient.

What is needed to make the German variety of Chamomile a major cash crop is a more precise way of mechanically harvesting the flowerhead from the stem. If any stem is retained in the harvest, the flowerhead is not marketable. Today, most of this crop is harvested by hand, using combs and other raking devices.

While a working prototype flowerhead harvester does exist, and is being used to harvest Pyrethrum and Marigold, the device leaves too much stem for it to work in the harvest of German Chamomile. What needs to be added is an optical scanner (laser) that positions knives to slice the flowerhead from the stem, rather than plucking it.

A plucking action will always leave a small amount of stem next to the flowerhead. This is why some sources of these Chamomiles are preferred over others. I should conclude this discussion by reminding you that German Chamomile is the single largest sold crop in the herb and spice category. It’s volumes even rival Peppermint, Spearmint, and Basil.

It is also perfectly suited for the marginal tundra soils of Alberta and Montana, having previously been available from Siberia (before the Soviet breakup). With a mechanical device to harvest the flowerheads, more than 50,000 acres could be cultivated within North America within the next five years.

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