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The Medicine Cabinet: In Your Own Garden

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009 The Medicine Cabinet: In Your Own Garden

James Wong 27 is an enthusiastic ethno-botanist (a scientist who studies the use of plants) and gardener, he is currently running a fascinating series on BBC2 demonstrating a delicious blend of gardening, cooking, health and beauty that are also in his book ‘Grow Your Own Drugs.’

Wong is known to raid his flowerbed in the pursuit of cures for everyday ailments ranging from coughs to eczema.

Penny Walker of the Times reports on this young man’s journey of discovery (02 03 09).

He is passionate about sharing his knowledge of plants to make natural remedies from readily available plants growing in gardens, hedgerows, meadows and woodland.

Inspired by his grandmother in Malaysia who taught him about the health giving properties of plants, James uses his top class academic knowledge of them to show how easy it is to make creams, lotions, lozenges and more which may help relieve the symptoms of a variety of common complaints.

This is bourne out as Walker describes, ‘one bitterly cold day recently James Wong found himself walking home in a light coat. He’s an optimist, he explains. But just to make sure he didn’t get a cold, when he got home he made his granny’s chicken soup, using echinacea root, goji berries and extreme quantities of ginger, chillies and garlic.’

“Well, I didn’t get a cold,” he says. “It’s something I make all the time. In Asia you don’t have a big thick dividing line between food and medicine. That soup would be eaten as dinner even if you weren’t feeling under the weather.”

Wong claims that, “Natural remedies are sometimes portrayed as rather wishy washy and ineffective. This series will reveal that many plants contain the same active ingredients as over the counter drugs.

“It’s just that, over the years, we’ve lost the knowledge of how to make the most of their health benefits in our daily lives.

“The fact that many remedies are cheap to make and can be prepared in five minutes at home, makes them all the more appealing and convenient.”

In addition he argues that Aspirin, though now synthetic, was originally derived from sal acetic acid which is found in willow, meadowsweet and the shrub spirea. Morphine-based painkillers are based on opium from poppies, and the contraceptive pill was originally isolated from the Mexican wild yam. The World Health Organisation estimates that 80 per cent of the world’s population relies on plant-based medicine as its key form of healthcare.

“It’s cultural. In Malaysia, where I spent a lot of my childhood, Western medicine came along and was considered useful, but as an adjunct to traditional medicine that never went away. In Northern Europe the Industrial Revolution meant that people were ripped out of the countryside, where they had this rich ethnobotanical knowledge, and popped into cities. Within a couple of generations all that knowledge is lost. There’s very little methodology to pass on.”

It was at his grandmother’s home in Malaysia that he absorbed the idea that plants aren’t just pretty, but that many of them can be functional. “We’d walk around my grandmother’s back garden and she’d rip off a leaf of a palm tree and a couple of minutes of origami later she’d have a perfectly usable hat that would last for quite a long time,” he says.

“The plant next to it was one they used to stitch injuries together during the Second World War. Not only was it fibrous but it had antiseptic qualities. It was magical to me as a kid that you could do so much with the things most people walk past. People have this idea that you have to hike to the depths of the Amazon to find the source of plant-based medicines, and that once you have got them you need a fully equipped pharmaceutical laboratory full of people in white coats preparing this stuff in really elaborate processes.

“That’s a myth. Plant-based medicines have evolved as a response to situations where people don’t have a lot of time or money. When I was studying shamanic medicine in Ecuador, if a woman had eight kids and one of them had stomach ache, she had to find something in her immediate environment that she could cook up on the stove while taking care of her other seven children.”

The series covers the potential uses of various flowers, fruit, vegetables, herbs, trees, roots and bulbs commonly found in the UK.

Using these as ingredients, James makes simple preparations which could help soothe a range of common conditions including acne and eczema, anxiety, insomnia, cold sores, and general aches and pains.

Covering more commonly known uses, such as Echinacea to boost the immune system, the series gives insights into less well known traditional uses for plants, such as hops for insomnia, pine as a natural deodorant, and liquorice for coughs.

What about evidence and clinical trials? the truth is that they don’t exist, of course, because drug companies don’t invest in expensive trials unless they know they will get a return in sales.

Though it has to be stated that Wong in his book includes a number of disclaimers, more specifically he will strongly suggest that you see a GP before trying any natural remedies, and particularly if you are on any other medication, check for allergies, make sure you have identified the plants you use correctly, and so on. “We’re not saying this headache remedy is clinically proven to cure headaches, but that the plants in it contain ingredients that have been demonstrated to have an effect. The chemicals in them demand as much respect as a conventional drug and can be considered a drug.”

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