Saturday, October 17, 2009

Tea with Peter Rabbit: A Fanciful Herbal

In the story of Peter Rabbit, both Camomile Tea and Rabbit Tobacco are mentioned along with rosemary and other herbs not named.

Remember in the story of Peter Rabbit, when Peter has been out and chased by Mr. MacGregor, he comes home sick and is put to bed and given Camomile Tea? I've never grown camomile, but bought camomile tea bags at the dollar store to make a little tisane to pour over newly sprouted seedlings to prevent damping off.

Camomile Tea
by Katherine Mansfield

Outside the sky is light with stars;
There's a hollow roaring from the sea.
And, alas! for the little almond flowers,
The wind is shaking the almond tree.

How little I thought, a year ago,
In the horrible cottage upon the Lee
That he and I should be sitting so
And sipping a cup of camomile tea.

Light as feathers the witches fly,
The horn of the moon is plain to see;
By a firefly under a jonquil flower
A goblin toasts a bumble-bee.

We might be fifty, we might be five,
So snug, so compact, so wise are we!
Under the kitchen-table leg
My knee is pressing against his knee.

Our shutters are shut, the fire is low,
The tap is dripping peacefully;
The saucepan shadows on the wall
Are black and round and plain to see.

My own taste runs more to Chai Tea, black tea and spices, on a chilly day like today as lower temperatures blow in on the North Wind.

 Dover photo
Elsewhere in Beatrix Potter's stories:
Old Mrs. Rabbit was a widow; she earned her living by knitting rabbit-wool mittens and muffatees (I once bought a pair at a bazaar). She also sold herbs, and rosemary tea, and rabbit-tobacco (which is what we call lavender).

The cat looked up and saw old Mr. Benjamin Bunny prancing along the top of the wall of the upper terrace.
He was smoking a pipe of rabbit-tobacco, and had a little switch in his hand.
He was looking for his son.

Old Mr. Bouncer was stricken in years. He sat in the spring sunshine
outside the burrow, in a muffler; smoking a pipe of rabbit tobacco.

So, according to Miss Potter, rabbit tobacco as told in the Peter Rabbit stories, was lavender, a whimsical notion that bunnies might smoke it.

In the sunny South, Joel Chandler Harris (1881), Uncle Remus Songs
has Uncle Remus telling the little boy: "Then Brer Rabbit...tuck a big chaw terbacker." "Tobacco, Uncle Remus?" asked the little boy, incredulously. "Rabbit terbacker, Honey. You know this life everlastin' that Miss Sally puts among the clothes in the trunk; well, that's rabbit terbacker."

Gnaphalium uliginosum in the Seventeenth Century:
The plants are all astringent, or dry and binding, and therefore profitable for defluxions of rheum from the head, and to stay fluxes of blood wheresoever. The decoction made into red wine and drunk, or the powder taken therein, also helpeth the blood flux, and easeth the torments that come thereby, stayeth the immoderate courses of women, and is also good for inward or outward wounds, hurts and bruises, and helpeth children both of burstings [hernia] and the worms, and the disease called tenesmus, (which is an often provocation to the stool, and doing nothing,) being either drunk or injected. The green leaves bruised and laid to any green wound, stayeth the bleeding, and healeth it up quickly; the decoction or juice thereof doth the same, and helpeth old and filthy ulcers quickly. The juice of the herb taken in wine and milk, is (as Pliny saith) a sovereign remedy against the mumps and quinsy; and further saith, that whosoever shall so take it shall never be troubled with that disease again. --Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, and English Physician. First ed., 1652. Reprint of the Manchester edition of 1826. Barcelona: Harvey Sales, 1981.

In more current literature, the best and most realistic use of Gnaphalium spp. was stuffed into a thin cotton pillow. The little pillows were claimed to be used by asthmatics to relieve their symptoms. Nowhere did I find documented that smoking rabbit tobacco was actually done by anyone except little boys in the south, including my own husband, who said it tasted terrible.

You can read an account of Rabbit Tobacco and other Weeds as told by my high school classmate, Patsy, concerning her first year of college, here: Ignorance is Bliss, or, Weeds.

Last year when rabbit tobacco bloomed, I cut several stalks, bundled them together and put them in the tool shed. The aromatic resinous fragrance from the volatile oils and resins contained was much more pleasant than the usual musty smell of a tool shed.

If you reached this post from a foreign site that sells tea, it has been linked without permission.


  1. Hello Nell,

    I love Peter Rabbit and other Beatrix Potter stories.

    I'm not too sure about smoking lavender, but it would probably smell better then other types of tobacco :)

  2. You took me back to my childhood with this post Nell! That is a charming plant, with an interesting name. ;)

  3. Is rabbit tobacco as we know it in the south really lavender?

    I've been wanting to ask you if you can call the name of this weed I saw when I was down that way a few weeks ago. It was growing 3 or 4 feet tall and the leaves looked sort of like clover and there were small yellow flowers on the plant. I thought it was coffee weed but when I googled coffee weed it didn't look the same.

  4. Jean,

    Aside from the stories - I've heard Pop talk about Rabbit Tobacco - he said he had to smoke a bit of it back during the depression - that real tobacco was hard to come by. I've heard it was also popular during and after the War Between the States - guess that's all that was available. I bet there were a lot of southern boys glad that the union army left the plant alone. lol

  5. I don't know that it grows here. Does it grow from seeds?

    I loved this post.

  6. Brought back a lot of memories. I haven't thought of that sweet book in years. Thanks for a very enjoyable post! -Jackie

  7. Loved this. So much fun. I grew chamomile one season. Don't remember if it did well or not. I like it at night when I cannot sleep, but I don't know about rabbit tobacco. Hmmm.~~Dee

  8. Nell,

    First, thank you for your suggestion for the header on my blog, I really appreciate it.

    I adore Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten, Hunca Munca, and their creator Beatrix Potter. Chamomile is a wonderful plant to grow, although a bit invasive. I don't mind a cup of chamomile tea, but Chai is so much more delicious. I had no idea what rabbit tobacco is, but now I do.

    What a fun post to read! Thank you.

  9. nice post with alot of fun :)

  10. I'm not a tea drinker, but sure enjoyed this post. You've got me thinking that I need to revisit Peter Rabbit.

  11. Enjoyable post from so many perspectives. Lovely poem by KM. I remember visiting the Beatrix Potter museum in the Lake District of England. Could just imagine Peter curling up there with a cuppa chamomile.

  12. I am a big fan of Beatrix Potter. Lovely plant.


I look forward to comments and questions and lively discussion of gardening and related ideas.