Leah Mclaren

Know your onions

Leah McLaren meets James Wong, the Jamie Oliver of plant-based medicine: handsome, telegenic and on a mission to persuade Britain to trust natural remedies again

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James Wong may not yet be a household name but he does have trouble getting through the checkout line at Sainsbury’s. As the presenter of BBC2’s Grow Your Own Drugs, the 28-year-old’s fame is fast on the rise. In a nutshell, he is the Jamie Oliver of plant-based medicine: affable, competent, with a cheeky glint in his eye. While Oliver can inspire even the laziest housewife to whip up a simple Italian supper, so too Wong possesses the telegenic power to make a sceptical, black-thumbed gal want to heal herself naturally. After watching his latest series, I found myself out on my rainy terrace furiously pruning a shrivelled potted rosemary for clippings to mix with organic wine, thus creating a foolproof tincture to improve short-term memory and ward off dementia.

Where was I again? Oh right, Sainbury’s. So there was James Wong, queued up and minding his own business, nursing a rather nasty tension headache if you must know, when a strange woman appeared out of nowhere and began shrieking at him. ‘It turned out she was completely irate about the fact that I was buying aspirin,’ he says. ‘She said, “I knew it was a BBC scam! I believed in you and here you are, just buying aspirin, in front of everyone.”’

A nice, middle-class Anglo-Malaysian boy, Wong was gobsmacked to be so rudely accosted in public. Today, however, he is filled with l’esprit d’escalier. ‘What I’d say to her now is, “I know you might think aspirin is from the dark side, but it’s actually based on salicin, a chemical that is found in willow bark, which people have been using for centuries to cure headaches.”’ Wong grins, dark eyes flashing. He is, it must be said, remarkably handsome for a gardening geek. ‘“If I was at home, I could pop into the cupboard and take out a tincture, but buying it in pill form just happens to be a cheaper, quicker alternative that works for me right now, OK?”’

OK. So maybe it’s not the wittiest retort, but what Wong lacks in silver-tongued sarcasm, he makes up for in scientific knowledge. And it’s a good thing too. As the world’s first and (I’ll take a gamble here) only celebrity ethno-botanist, facts are Wong’s bread and butter. And speaking of butter, he recommends infusing it with feverfew, tarragon and parsley to help prevent migraines.

Apart from hoping to decongest your sinuses with eucalyptus and cure your psoriasis with turmeric, Wong is on a mission to dispel what he calls ‘the mythical black line’ between conventional medicine (proven, trusted, synthetic) and herbal medicine (flaky, exaggerated, harmless). Such distinctions, he says, are ‘a figment of our cultural imagination rather than a scientific truth’.

Another collective delusion, he says, is the idea that all herbal medicine is good for you. ‘There are huge numbers of extremely toxic plants out there and that’s why I think Grow Your Own Drugs is a great title. Apart from being eye-catching, it crucially applies the word “drugs” to plant-based medicine and says that they should be treated with as much respect as taking a pill.’

Wong’s show is full of disclaimers. He is quick to point out the herbal remedies he concocts and tests on his guests are in no way clinical trials. All remedies on the show are, however, vetted and overseen by a professor of pharmacology at the University of Reading.

He admits that since the success of the series, he’s had far more people asking his advice on their various ailments from indigestion to depression. ‘It’s actually a bit alarming. A couple of times complete strangers have run across lanes of traffic to show me their rashes,’ he says. ‘But I’m not a doctor and I don’t pretend to be — generally I just tell them to go and see their GP.’

Wong’s singular obsession is plants, and he comes by it honestly. Born in Britain to an English mother and a Malaysian father, his parents relocated to Malaysia when he was an infant. There he grew up among the hibiscus and bougainvillea blossoms before returning to Britain to accept a scholarship in science at the University of Bath. His grandparents in Malaysia were, he says, avid amateur herbalists, applying homeopathic tonics and rubs to all common afflictions. Some of it, he admits was ‘complete pseudo-science’, but a lot of it worked. His grandparents back in England were farmers who understood the concept of ‘local, seasonal, organic’ long before Whole Foods cashed in on the concept.

Wong became a TV presenter more or less by accident. After travelling to Ecuador to research his master’s degree on indigenous rainforest plants, he planned to do a PhD. But after talking to a number of academics who had spent decades ‘studying one plant in one particular indigenous group in one particular island chain in the world’, he decided academia might be a little focused for his MTV-generation attention span. ‘I want to know everything about anything that interests me, and I get very annoyed when I don’t,’ is how he puts it.

Growing up, he had been inspired by TV nature documentaries, most notably David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants. Back in England, he began writing letters to random broadcasting executives asking why there weren’t any more good plant shows on television. Eventually, the BBC commissioned a show with Silver River Productions, and it is entering its second season this year.

Wong admits that some of the success of his show may be down to the placebo effect — he is a persuasive host. He says he’s fine with that. ‘If you really believe something’s going to work and it does, then the placebo effect is real and measurable.’

He is so passionately nerdy about plants that he is liable to gallop off without warning on tangents about the antioxidant properties of onions and the difficulty of stabilising chemical compounds found in honeysuckle and jasmine. But he is also obsessed with breaking down the cultural boundaries between the plants we enjoy for pleasure and those we use to treat our nasty ailments. ‘In every culture apart from western culture, food, medicine and beauty products are all the same. There’s no clear distinction.’

I ask him if this is the reason why puddings in Indian restaurants taste of face lotion. He laughs — but goes on to break down the chemical properties of your average besan halwa. Lots of butter, sugar, cardamom, dairy — yup, sounds like something you might put in a face pack.

Inspiring as it is to imagine waxing my legs with rose and clove sugar or giving my corneas a soothing fennel seed eyebath, it does raise the obvious question: who’s actually got the time? On this point Wong is adamant. He insists that once you get in the habit of whipping up the odd tonic or tincture and storing it in your freezer or pantry, the whole endeavour becomes easier, cheaper and a lot more fun than tramping down to the chemist’s for a shaving lotion and eye drops.

‘It’s a cost/benefit scenario,’ he says, pointing out that when he was studying shamanic medicine in Ecuador, the poor housewives weren’t exactly setting off into the jungle for days to find a rare root or berry every time one of their children had a fever. ‘They need something in their immediate vicinity that they can pick up and process while they take care of their other seven kids, wash everything by hand, prepare the meal for their husband when he gets back, and till the fields all at the same time.’

Of course, if these Ecuadorian housewives lived in London in 2010 instead of the rainforest, they mig ht just ask their husband to pop out to Sainsbury’s for aspirin while they improved their memory with a large slug of rosemary wine. Now where did I put my glass?

The second series of Grow Your Own Drugs starts on 7 April on BBC2.