MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Joined now by someone who is going to urge you to grow your own drugs. Now, 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. James 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." It's an offshoot of his BBC television series. James, welcome to the program.
Mr. JAMES WONG (Ethnobotanist; Author, "Grow Your Own Drugs"): Thank you very much for having me.
BLOCK: And you say at the outset James, you are not against conventional medicine, that you look all around you at plants and you see these little bright, beautiful chemical factories.
Mr. WONG: That's a really good way of putting it, actually. I think so many people have the stereotyped idea of what herbal medicine is. And it's - 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 basement or something or another. And I think it's really important as a scientist to show that this sort of big black line that so many people have in their minds is really a cultural idea, not a scientific one.
You know, to me as a scientist, whether a chemical is found within a pill or the cells of a plant is really irrelevant. I mean, that's just packaging. It's whether, you know, there is a plausibility that it works on not. So, I'm totally not against conventional medicine. I'm the person who's popping aspirin whenever I've got the opportunity. But, you know, if I'm at home and I've got things to hand I might well make, oh, an extract using willow bark, for example, an extract using meadow sweet, which are the plants that aspirin was first derived from, and in many senses can be seen as in some ways superior and in some ways practical, depending on your situation.
BLOCK: You have recipes in this book for remedies for a wide range of ailments, everything from hot flashes to eczema to arthritis. And I want to talk about your treatment for something that has driven so many parents and children to complete distraction: head lice.
Mr. WONG: Conventional medicine or conventional treatments for head lice in the U.K. at least are proving increasingly problematic in treating head lice because head lice is becoming immune to the chemicals that are traditionally used. So, there is a big interest in looking at alternatives. And one of these is neem oil that we use. Neem oil works in an entirely different way as an insecticide. It actually mimics the chemicals, hormones that an insect has in its body and it basically sends off the wrong chemical messages to the insect. So, it produces lots of problems with it feeding, it reproducing, and it molting. But it's entirely safe for all mammals, just toxic to insects.
BLOCK: What is neem oil?
Mr. WONG: Neem oil is an oil that's produced from a tree, a subtropical tree, native to India. And it's quite widely available in health food shops. And it's not particularly expensive either.
BLOCK: I can imagine skeptical parents everywhere right now listening to this and wondering, does it really work?
Mr. WONG: Well, I would say to that, give it a go. As with all herbal remedies, they don't necessarily come with guarantees. And if you've tried conventional stuff and it hasn't, I don't think there's any harm in giving it a go.
BLOCK: And you have the neem oil in your recipe mixed up with almond oil, garlic cloves, tea tree oil, rosemary, lavender, I guess just to smell pretty.
Mr. WONG: Actually, all of those ingredients have been used traditionally for the insecticidal properties. It's the essential oils within them that's the key insecticidal compound. I think in human terms, when you think of how long we've been battling with insects, you're talking a couple of thousand years. When you think about how long plants have been waging sort of warfare with insects, this goes back millions of years. And 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.
It's really many of our the recipes that I've used are basically about hijacking chemicals that plants have evolved for themselves and using them to treat people and animals.
BLOCK: You have a recipe in here for treating athlete's foot with a garlic footbath, a lot of garlic and some sage leaves, cider, vinegar. And that you say will cure what ails you if you've got athlete's foot.
Mr. WONG: Well, all of those ingredients have antifungal properties, particularly garlic, and particularly the concentration that we're using them at. Plenty of garlic, plenty of sage, plenty of lavender. And one of my key things that I wanted to get across in this book and series is that natural medicine doesn't have to be about trekking off to the Amazon. It's about plants that are growing in and around your neighborhood that are accessible to you. And, you know, when you're thinking about lavender and sage, so many people have got them in their back garden anyway. And things like garlic and sage are probably in your spice rack. It's about things that are easy and accessible and you don't need any more equipment than, you know, I used to have in my student kitchen when I knocked them off at university.
BLOCK: Now, a few caveats we should toss in here. You say if you're sick you should, of course, talk to your doctor, do not self diagnose.
Mr. WONG: Very much so. I'm an ethnobotanist by training, which is a scientist that studies the use of plants. I'm not medically trained. There are all sorts of interesting solutions that are found in the plant world but, you know, you need to be responsible, you need to make sure that you have a proper diagnosis and know exactly what you've got. And, you know, once you've got that you can consider using plant-based remedies as part of the solution. But it's very much not about abandoning conventional medicine. It's almost like a useful compliment to it.
BLOCK: And also you say, know what you're picking, be very careful of poisonous plants, of course.
Mr. WONG: That's a very important thing. I think, you know, as a botanist, it's quite easy to forget that to the layman, you know, there are lots of poisonous plants that are morphologically in their shape very, very similar to perfectly useful plants. And it really is important to get a good guidebook and, you know, visually identify exactly what you're looking for.
BLOCK: James, do you have an all-time favorite medicinal plant?
Mr. WONG: Oh, gosh, it really is like picking between your children, you might have one but you wouldn't like to say it...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WONG: ...to make the other ones feel bad.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WONG: What would I say? I'd say probably garlic. It's my favorite, although it's not particularly exotic and far-flung and unusual. But it's my favorite probably because of all those things. It's so widely available, you can get it in whichever country in the world you're at, so easy to grow. It tastes brilliant but it has such a huge range of medicinal uses. It's antifungal, it's antibacterial and it's antiviral. So, really, with all of those uses combined, it's just such a one-stop shop you just have to pick it.
BLOCK: James Wong is the author of "Grow Your Own Drugs." James, thanks a lot.
Mr. WONG: Thank you very much.
BLOCK: And at npr.org, you can find his recipes for treatments for head lice and athlete's foot, along with the recipe to add some fizzy fun to your bath.
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