Ethnobotanist James Wong grew up in Malaysia, where, he says "plants are solutions to everyday problems." This, he says, allowed him to see plants as a "living supermarket, pharmacy, a home improvement center and even a liquor store -- all rolled into one." It also influenced Wong to create the popular BBC television show Grow Your Own Drugs and best-selling book of the same name.
We spoke with James Wong about his interest in plants, and how he came to "grow his own drugs."
How did you get into natural medicine?
My background is as an ethnobotanist that studies the use of plants. I trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. I did my masters in Ecuador looking at traditional medicine in shamanic communities in northern Ecuador. I really became quite frustrated because if you look at the Western perception of traditional medicine it's really clouded by lots of really unuseful stereotypes.
I thought so many people in the west could be interested in it but it's always packaged in a way that brings up barriers. It always comes attached with a very stereotypical hippie image. I wanted to explain traditional medicine in very simple, honest and open and scientific way, using plants that definitely have a plausibility behind the chemicals they contain. In some cases there's clinical trial after clinical trial that backs up their use. In some cases just a really long history of use.
Tell us about the process of developing these recipes.
Most of these recipes were based on existing traditional medicine. What I am doing is creating an unusual take on them. I think there are lots of barriers that stop people from getting into traditional medicine -- one of them is the plausibility of how it works. Another is the stereotype that all herbal medicines taste awful and are really difficult to make. I've tried to take traditional forms of the medicine and update them to make them more interesting and cool -- to make them more like something you would get at a high end spa or fancy restaurant and less like dusty herbs that are cooked up for hours.
Have there been a lot of clinical trials done on these natural remedies?
In general there haven't been a lot of clinical trials on plants. One of the biggest reasons is because you can't patent plants. If [a pharmaceutical company] did spend lots of money researching a particular plant and found that it worked wonderfully, as soon as they went to produce the drug anyone else could just copy it directly because they don't have a patent.
But just because there haven't been clinical trials doesn't mean something doesn't work. What we do know is what chemicals are contained in certain plants and we do know a lot about how those chemicals work.
Why should you make your own drugs?
Stuff that's in your back garden can be quicker, easier, more enjoyable and taste better than stuff you get in the pharmacy. It's often cheaper and you know exactly what's in it. In many cases there are less side effects. And in many cases certain conventional medicines for certain conditions won't necessarily work for everyone.
What precautions should you take before starting these natural regimens?
I would say definitely go to your doctor and get a proper diagnosis. A migraine could be something a lot more serious. All the plants in the book have a really long history of proven use. They're really safe. The things we're talking about are chili, garlic, onions -- things you probably had in your sandwich today. You just don't necessarily know how to use them medicinally.
And for the record -- I'm not against conventional medicine. I'm one of those people who will pop an aspirin if I need to.
If you have limited time or space for growing your own herbs, what one ingredient would you recommend growing?
If there's one thing you should grow it should be lavender. It looks good, smells good, and provides lots of use. The chemicals it contains are antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and also has an anti-anxiety effect. So if you've got lavender you can treat everything from athlete's foot to insomnia to eczema with what's contained there. It tastes wonderful as well.
Grow Your Own Drugs by James Wong published in the US by Reader's Digest Books © 2009 Silver River Productions Limited. All rights reserved.
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