At the end of The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, the mischievous bunny’s mother, Old Mrs Rabbit, puts him to bed with some chamomile tea. In this timeless children’s story, Peter is forbidden to go into Mr McGregor’s garden – because his father was caught there and put in a pie – but he does it anyway and feasts on radishes, lettuce and beans. Mr McGregor spots Peter and chases him all around the garden. He’s terrified and gets hopelessly lost. Eventually he makes it home feeling sick and exhausted, hence the early night and the medicinal dose of chamomile tea.
This yellowy aromatic brew, they say, soothes you and shepherds you off to sleep. And I want some, because I need to be soothed and shepherded off to sleep. So I’ve decided to grow my own chamomile plants in pots this year, for their little white flowers and feathery leaves. They’ll sit alongside the tarragon, basil and thyme in my miniature patio herb garden.
I pick up the packet of chamomile seeds and it feels empty. I turn it over, read the instructions and rub the glossy paper with my thumbs. I tear it open and there is another, smaller envelope inside. I open that one too and stare in surprise at the smear of a thousand tiny greenish-yellow flakes. “Well, what were you expecting?” they ask. “Er, something a bit more … substantial?” I reply. Anyway, I do my best to sprinkle the seeds over a layer of thick black soil, and carefully cover them up with a handful more.
It’s been a long bland lockdown. Sometimes I feel like the outside world has turned into Mr McGregor’s garden – a place of nourishment and adventure that I’m not allowed to go to because Mrs McGregor might put me in a pie. There is danger everywhere. Someone might squash me or chase me with a rake. What if I get lost and lose my shoes, or end up cold and wet from hiding in a watering can?
I can imagine how Peter felt when he got home, no wonder he needed the tea to calm his shredded nerves. There’s solace to be found in small comforts, chocolate brownies or candles round a bath, a bunch of tulips or silky day pyjamas.
But it’ll take months for my chamomile flowers to grow, so I make do with pouring boiling water over a teabag in a blue and white stripy mug. I glance over at the seed tray – no sign of life yet, but it’s only been half an hour. I can see I’m going to have to be patient.