Chamomile species often look alike but differ in their composition of active ingredients. It is important to know the differences to avoid accidentally picking a poisonous chamomile species.
Identifying different types of chamomile can be difficult. There are even some plant species that bear the name chamomile but are actually members of a different plant genus than the German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). They can also have similar ingredients and are also used in traditional medicine.
Types of chamomile
There are about 25 species in the chamomile genus (Matricaria), two of which are German chamomile and wild chamomile (Matricaria discoidea). The closely related mayweed genus (Tripleurospermum) contains approximately 40 species, two of which are the rare sea mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritimum) and the scentless mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum). There are several more chamomile species from other genera that look like German chamomile and offer a wide range of uses as well.
German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), also known as scented mayweed, is commonly used to make chamomile tea, so it is a favourite in many gardens. As a result, it is commercially grown, but it can also be found growing in the wild and is native to the UK. German chamomile is being bred to improve the composition of the beneficial ingredients. Uniform growth is also a breeding aim for the commercial cultivation of chamomile. Some important varieties of German chamomile are:
- ‘Bodegold’: aromatic variety with large flowers
- ‘Gosal‘: chamomile oil from this variety contains a lot of bisabolol
- ‘Zloty Lan’: its essential oil contains a high proportion of the blue-coloured chamazulene
When harvesting chamomile in the wild, there is not only a risk of confusing it with less effective lookalikes but also with poisonous species like mayweed (Anthemis). So, it is essential to know the distinguishing characteristics of German chamomile:
- Rounded, arching flower base covered in small yellow tubular flowers with white ray florets
- Cut in half, the flower base is hollow on the inside
- German chamomile grows up to 50 cm tall
- All parts of the plant have a distinctive chamomile scent when rubbed between the fingers
Wild chamomile (Matricaria discoidea), often known as pineapple weed, belongs to the same genus as German chamomile. It is easy to identify, as the flower head only has greenish yellow dome floret in the centre without the typical white ray petals. While both have a hollow flower base and an intense chamomile scent in common, the lack of white ray petals is the distinguishing feature between German and wild chamomile. When it comes to ingredients, however, wild chamomile brings less to the table than German chamomile. It, too, can be used as a medicinal plant, but the effects are weaker.
Roman chamomile or common chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) belongs to a different genus, but it is almost identical to German chamomile in appearance and effect. However, unlike German chamomile, Roman chamomile is a perennial. At 15 to 30 cm tall, it is considerably smaller than German chamomile, but its benefits make up for the height difference due to the similar substances it contains. Another distinguishing feature of Roman chamomile is the leaves, which are more finely pinnate. In addition, the base of the flower head is filled with pith rather than hollow.
Scentless mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum), also known as double mayweed, grows throughout much of Europe. As the name suggests, it does not have the characteristic chamomile scent. Scentless mayweed also lacks the ingredients that would make it useful for medicinal purposes. In appearance, however, scentless mayweed looks just like German chamomile. Here too, the distinctive base of the flower head can be used as a clear distinguishing feature, as German chamomile has a hollow base. Simply cut the daisy-like flower in half to check.
Mayweed (Anthemis) also form a genus of their own. They include about 160 different species. Some give off a faint chamomile scent or even smell unpleasant. Some species are used for medicinal purposes, while others have no effect or can cause skin irritation or allergic reactions. The following species can be found in Europe:
- Eastern chamomile (Anthemis ruthenica): species with hairy leaves
- Austrian chamomile (Anthemis austriaca): leaves with felt-like hairs on the underside
- Stinking mayweed (Anthemis cotula): gives off an unpleasant odour and can irritate mucous membranes if consumed as a tea
- Corn chamomile (Anthemis arvensis): has faint chamomile smell and is sometimes used in medicine
At a glance: differences between mayweed and German chamomile
- Hollow flower base for German chamomile; pithy for mayweed
- German chamomile has hairless leaves; mayweed has hairy leaves
- German chamomile gives off a strong chamomile scent; mayweed gives off a weak or unpleasant scent
There is no danger of confusion when it comes to dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria), which is also called yellow chamomile or golden marguerite. All of its flowers, including the ray florets, are yellow. It is no secret that yellow chamomile has a bright and beautiful colour. Dyer’s chamomile is used to dye wool and other fabrics, giving them a natural yellow glow.
The chamomile conundrum
At first glance, German chamomile has quite a few doppelgangers. However, the strong chamomile scent and the typical appearance – flowers with white petals and yellow centres – are only shared with Roman chamomile, which is on par in terms of effectiveness. When in doubt, however, one of the most reliable distinguishing features of German chamomile is the hollow base of the flower head. The only other chamomile with this feature is wild chamomile, which is easily distinguishable by its lack of white ray florets. So, when collecting chamomile in the wild, have a knife handy for checking the cross-sections of the flower heads. Plants that could be mistaken for German chamomile are:
- Roman chamomile: pithy base
- Mayweed: pithy base
- Scentless mayweed: pithy base
- Wild chamomile: lack of white ray florets
Now that you know how to recognise the less effective or poisonous relatives of German chamomile, you are ready to venture out and harvest chamomile in the wild. In future, you may even want to give Roman chamomile a try.
The uses of chamomile are practically unlimited. Read on in our other article to learn everything there is to know about the ingredients and uses of chamomile.