Saturday, October 18, 2014

Chamomile, what flower is on your tea box?

What do you think - does this chamomile tea box from STASH show chamomile flowers or something else?
  The medicinal plant chamomile has been used since ancient times for medicinal uses, especially as a calming and sleep inducing tea.  Chamomile is usually one of two similar-looking species, Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) or the more common German or wild chamomile  (Matricaria chamomilla). These species have many common names and also many scientific synonymous names, so I am listing some of them below.

So, what is the problem?  Well, there are many species in the sunflower family that look like white daisies with a yellow center, like both of the chamomiles have. So the companies that make chamomile tea packaging seems to have a horrible time putting the right species on the box.  Even worse is the stock photo market where a lot of 'chamomile tea' photos show something totally different than one of the two chamomile species.

Why does this matter?  Even if plants are similar in shape and color, they can have different chemistry.  Many times an edible plant may have a toxic look-alike.  If companies can't even bother putting the right plant on the label, can you trust them to check what is really in that bulk sample of dried leaves and flowers they are selling and want you to steep and drink and then sleep calmly on?  Maybe not... 

So, how does the two true chamomile species look like? First, the 'flower' of a chamomile is a whole flower head.  It is a member of the sunflower family, Asteraceae, and just like its relative the sunflower in each flower head there is a circle of outer small ray flowers (white), and in the flat center is an area of disk flowers (yellow) that look like small yellow tubes.

Here is German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla, some older names are Chamomilla chamomilla, Chamomilla recutitaMatricaria recutita and Matricaria suaveolens):

German chamomile.
Photo by kallerna on Wikipedia, Creative Commons license.
German chamomile, in Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen on Wikimedia, public domain.
Note how the leaves of German chamomile are divided into many narrow segments, and how the flower head is hollow and uplifted in the center with age, and how the white ray flowers along edge becomes vertically pointed downwards with age.

Here is Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), a very similar species that previously has been called Anthemis nobilis.
Roman chamomile, in Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen on Wikimedia, public domain. 
The Roman chamomile also have finely dissected leaves and a central part of the flower head that is lifted up.

The most common mixup when it comes to photos and other illustrations of chamomile is with the oxeye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare. It has very different leaves that are whole and with a serrate edge.  The flower heads are flatter and the ray flowers are a lot larger and longer.  This species is also often unbranched or just branched from the base, but Roman and German chamomile are often very much branched.
Ox-eye daisy, from Lindman's flora, now in the public domain.
Fleabane is another species you see mixed up with chamomile sometimes.  It has many, many more ray flowers and each white ray is a lot narrower than a chamomile or ox-eye daisy.
Fleabane, Erigeron annuus, with a branched inflorescence, whole leaves, and flower heads with many, many white ray flowers. Photo by Enrico Blasutto on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license.
The easiest way to tell these species apart is to look at the flowers in the flower head and the leaf shape - here is an overview of the good characters to tell them all apart:

Common name
German chamomile
Roman chamomile
oxeye daisy
Accepted name
Matricaria chamomilla
Chamaemelum nobile
Leucanthemum vulgare
Erigeron sp.
Older names
Matricaria recutita
Anthemis nobilis
Chrysanthemum leucanthemum
Erigeron annuus and E. strigosus are common species)
Leaf type on stem
finely dissected into small, long narrow lobes, fern-like
finely dissected into small, long narrow lobes, fern-like
simple, whole leaves wider towards the apex, edges with irregular teeth, leaves clasping stem
whole, lance-shaped to oblong, with serrate edge
Flower heads per plant
ca. 8–120 per plant, stem heavily branched
ca. 3-20 per plant, branches many
ca. 1-10, branches few and flower heads long-stalked
5–50+ per plant, branches many
Number of white ray flowers per head
ca. (10-)14-26
ca. 13–21
ca. 13–34
ca. 80–125, very thin and narrow
Ray (white) flowers on old flower heads
bending down under the flower head
bending down under the flower head
spread outwards, horizontal, sometimes downwards (wilted look)
spread outwards, horizontal, or coiling upwards
Yellow center in middle of flower head (= all disk flowers)
raised like a dome
raised like a dome
flat or sunken inwards
flat or slightly dome-shaped, often slightly sunken in center

So, who got it wrong and needs to fix their packaging illustrations? 
Royal herbal tea infusions show oxeye daisy on their chamomile tea. 

Stash's non-organic chamomile tea unfortunately shows a fleabane plant. Flea bane has been used for, you guessed it, remove fleas and other parasites on our bodies and clothes. Photo by

Do any teaboxes show the right chamomile?  
Alvita Chamomile tea box with real chamomile on it.
Stash's organic chamomile tea shows nice real chamomile on it.
Traditional Medicinals also gets it right with their organic Chamomile tea.  Here is the right thing.

And then we have the world of stock photo inaccuracies, which seems to be a never-ending subject.  The lack of quality control of stock photos is rather astounding.

Dreamstime is selling two photos labeled as 'Cup of herbal tea with chamomile flowers'. Sorry, that is ox-eye flowers. Screenshot by

And then we have the mystery plant.  On Tom's of Maine's toothpaste 'Botanically Bright, with natural chamomile', there is a flower head that is not chamomile, but something else in Asteraceae, and leaves that are neither chamomile, fleabane, nor oxeye daisy.  I wonder what it might be...
Tom's of Maine toothpaste Botanically Bright.  Photo by