05 March 2010

Grow your own drugs

Ethnobotanist James Wong, presenter of BBC's Grow Your Own Drugs was featured on NPR's All Things Considered speaking to Melissa Block about his book of the same name

From NPR article
James Wong thinks you should grow your own drugs.

No, we're not talking about the illicit kind. We're talking about a living pharmacy of plants from your own backyard: fennel and rose hips; echinacea and dandelion; horse chestnuts and nettles.

Wong is an ethnobotanist. He trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, and he's written a medicinal recipe book called Grow Your Own Drugs, an offshoot of his BBC television series.

Plant Prejudice

In his book, Wong looks at plants as bright chemical factories.

"I think so many people have this stereotyped idea of what herbal medicine is," Wong tells NPR's Melissa Block.

He adds, "I think they've very much got a big black line in their minds that separates serious, conventional, tested, scientific medicine on one side and slightly airy, fairy, away-with-the-hippies — you know — natural-but-probably-doesn't-work, plant-based medicine on the other."

But that "black line," Wong says, is a cultural idea — not a scientific one.

"To me as a scientist, whether a chemical is found within a pill or the cells of plant is really irrelevant — that's just packaging," he said.

Hijacking Plant Weapons

The recipes in Wong's book offer remedies for a wide range of ailments — from sore throats to hot flashes to head lice.

"As with all herbal remedies, they don't necessarily come with guarantees. And if you've tried conventional stuff and it hasn't [worked], I don't think there's any harm in giving it a go," Wong says.

Wong says humans have been battling with insects for only a few thousand years. Plants, however, have been at war with insects for millions of years.

"Over that huge period, there's been time for them to evolve all sorts of unusual strategies, many of which are natural chemical weapons — insecticides — that exist in the environment that can be used in all manner of ways," he says.

In his recipes, Wong says he hijacks what plants have evolved for themselves, and he uses that to treat humans and animals.

Be A Responsible Experimenter

Wong offers a few caveats: Know what plants you're using. Also, don't self-diagnose.

"There are all sorts of interesting solutions that are found in the plant world, but you need to be responsible. You need to make sure that you have a proper diagnosis," he says.

Wong is not against conventional medicine. In fact, he says he has no qualms popping aspirin. But he says people can consider herbal medicine as part of the solution.

"It's very much not about abandoning conventional medicine," Wong says. "It's almost like a useful complement to it."
Read more for recipes (Amazon listing)

I enjoyed watching the show a few months ago. I am so over these television celebrity chefs. The antidote is a television celebrity scientist who cooks!

From the 2009 Christmas special - making anti-anxiety saffron egg nog
(BBC - producer Lucy Hooper, executive producer Dan Adamson)

Recipe for the anti-anxiety saffron egg nog from BBC

500ml whole milk
2 bay leaves
36 threads / 3 pinches saffron
2 strips orange rind
3 tbsp golden syrup
200ml single cream
3 eggs
150ml white rum
Grated fresh nutmeg, to serve

1. Pour the milk, bay leaves, saffron, orange rind, golden syrup and cream into a pan, and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Strain through a sieve.

2. Break the eggs into a glass heat-proof bowl, then slowly whisk in the hot milk mixture.

3. Place the bowl above a pan of boiling water and heat gently, stirring, until the mixture thickens to a custardy consistency. Then take it straight off the heat.

4. Whisk in the rum, then pour the mixture into a jug. Cool, then leave to stand in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours before serving.

5. Serve over ice with grated nutmeg.

USE: Drink no more than 1 wineglass a day.

CAUTION: Contains alcohol.

STORAGE: Keep in the refrigerator. Will last for 2 weeks.

Aside from the cooking, he's really cool to watch when he gets really excited in the garden

You can read his blog with the Royal Horticultural Society My Garden online community. James Wong is also a partner in Amphibian Designs.

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