One Scientist's Prescription: Grow Your Own Drugs Ethnobotanist James Wong believes there is no reason to always use conventional medicines when you can find relief from the plants in your garden. Wong, who wrote Grow Your Own Drugs, says that herbal medicines can be a useful complement to conventional drugs.

One Scientist's Prescription: Grow Your Own Drugs

One Scientist's Prescription: Grow Your Own Drugs

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"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," James Wong says. Courtesy of Reader's Digest hide caption

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Courtesy of Reader's Digest

"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," James Wong says.

Courtesy of Reader's Digest

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.

Grow Your Own Drugs
By James Wong
Hardcover, 224 pages
Reader's Digest
List price: $19.95

Read An Excerpt

"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."

Grow Your Own Drugs

Grow Your Own Drugs
Grow Your Own Drugs
By James Wong
Hardcover, 224 pages
Reader's Digest
List price: $19.95

A few tablespoons of this garlicky vinegar in hot water make a powerful antifungal foot bath, but don't use it on broken skin — it will hurt! The vinegar takes 1 month to infuse but will last at least 6 months to 1 year. It tastes good in salad dressings, too.


Garlic Footbath
    10 bulbs garlic, peeled and finely chopped
    100 g fresh sage leaves
    2 cups (500 ml) cider vinegar

1. Place the chopped garlic and sage leaves in a jar, then add the cider vinegar. Seal and leave to infuse for 1 month, shaking occasionally.

USE Add 5 tbsp to a bowl of hot water, and soak feet for 15 minutes. Use 2 or 3 times a week in conjunction with "Garlic Talcum Powder" (see page 52).

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This is a flexible recipe — feel free to try different combinations of ingredients by substituting other dried flowerheads and essential oils. You'll need a large biscuit cutter to shape the bomb — ideally1 to 11/2 inches (3 to 4 cm) wide and about 1 inch (3 cm) deep. Children will love helping you make this.


Lavender Bath Bomb
    5 to 6 fresh lavender sprigs
    1 tbsp citric acid powder
    3 tbsp baking soda
    10 drops of lavender essential oil
    1 tsp vegetable or almond oil

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Once oven has reached that temperature, turn off heat and place the lavender, hanging upside down from a rack, in the oven to dry forabout 2 hours. When dry, remove the flowers from the stalks and set aside.

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2. For the next stage you need to make sure that the bowl you are using, and your hands, are completely dry — otherwise the bomb will start fizzing. In a glass bowl, mix the citric acid and baking soda together. Add a few drops of lavender oil and 1 tsp dried lavender flowers, along with the vegetable or almond oil. Mix everything together with a metal spoon.

3. Place the biscuit cutter on top of a sheet of parchment paper. Put the mixture into the biscuit cutter and press down with the back of a spoon. The oil will need to evaporate so the bomb can set as a dry, hard block—let sit for a minimum of 30 minutes and preferably overnight.


Store in aluminum foil to keep out moisture.


If you are making this with children, you can add 1⁄2 tsp of edible glitter into the mix to create an even more dramatic effect.

With up to 80 percent of head lice now resistant to conventional treatments, the hunt is on for an effective and safe insecticide to treat nits — the tiny eggs that are notoriously hard to eradicate. This natural recipe, free of organophosphates, uses plant extracts with known insecticidal properties to kill both lice and the nits.


Neem Nit Treatment

Makes enough for 5-10 doses

    20 tbsp (approx. 100 g) fresh rosemary leaves

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      20 tbsp (approx. 25 g) fresh lavender flowers
      3/4 cup (200 ml) neem oil
      3/4 cup (200 ml) almond oil
      6 garlic cloves, minced
      2 tbsp tea tree essential oil

    1. Strip the rosemary leaves and lavender flowers from their sprigs.

    2. Combine the neem and almond oil together in a measuring cup.

    3. Crush half the rosemary and lavender in a mortar and pestle with a little of the oil to help ease the crushing process. Place the mashed-up herbs in a saucepan. Repeat with the second half of the rosemary and lavender, again adding a little oil for crushing.

    4. Place the crushed herbs and the neem and almond oil in the pan, and add the minced garlic. Heat gently for about 20 minutes.

    5. Strain through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. Add the tea tree oil to the reserved oil, stir, then filter into a sterilized 1⁄2 pint (500 ml) bottle.

    USE If using immediately, apply to dry hair, making sure that the hair is completely covered and that the oil penetrates to the scalp. Cover with a towel and leave on for at least 1 hour, or overnight if possible. Then wash off with two applications of shampoo. Apply conditioner, and comb through with a nit comb. Use the next application 7 days later, to deal with any nits that may hatch during that time. Comb through with the nit comb every 3 days.


    Keeps for 6 months.

    From the book Grow Your Own Drugs By James Wong. Copyright 2009 by James Wong. Reprinted with permission by Reader's Digest. All rights reserved.