Monday, 27 June 2011

James Wow-ng!

Our celebrity guest this week was Grow Your Own Drugs star (and Chelsea Gold Medal winner) James Wong.

Now don't get the impression that we have a celebrity guest every week (although,  I wouldn't be surprised if some of our lecturers were closet B-listers...) but this was a very special visit. James flew up specifically just for the day, braving Edinburgh's finest display of summer weather (torrential rain and freezing temperatures) to give us a talk on the latest and greatest herbs he's encountered and to share his knowledge with us in making potions, lotions, concoctions and brews (stay with me!).

But first we initiated him into the ways of Herbology.  Catherine had collected some beautiful Sambucus negra ‘Black Lace’ and so off we set on making trays of Elderflower & Hibiscus Turkish Delight.
James grew up in Malaysia where there are no boundaries between the concepts of food, medicine and therapeutic and even cosmetic preparations – all are done for the good of the body and health of the individual. He trained as Ethnobotantist focusing on how medicinal plants were used by different cultures across the world. Surprisingly he found that many of our familiar friends have traveled far and in the wake of European colonisation established residency in ancient traditions. So for example, in Ecuador, shamans who look and practice in a seemingly unique and indigenous way are actually using the same herbs we use: dandelions, nettles, daisies and hedgerow plants.

Catherine Conway-Payne & James Wong

His research, both independent and in tandem with Kew Garden experts, continues to embrace a global exchange of knowledge and he actively advocates changing what we grow in our gardens. In fact by introducing foreign plants we can reap benefits of not only health but of wealth too. A few topping his list:

Actinidia arguta 
Replace Gooseberries with Kiwis. Not your run of the mill kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa), but the smaller  Actinidia arguta (one of 96 other kinds of known Kiwis). It is a prized ornamental shrub and yields small strwabery size fruits. Older Japanese tradition considers them a poor man's food, but they are hugely antioxidant and can be used to counteract stomach upset and have excellent exfoliant properties for skin.

Wasabi japonica
Grow Wasabi not Cabbages. Wasabi naturally grows on chalky soil, in cold, freezing, wet conditions - an environment most definitely found here.  The peas, plants and stems are all good for you and sell for an enormous amount (stems = £10 each) in world markets, but can hardly been bought for love or money in the UK. Covent Garden would sing if you arrived with a basket of these.

Stevia rebaudiana
Ditch the Mint and plant Stevia.  Stevia 30 times sweeter than sugar – a fact not gone unnoticed by Japanese diet soft drink producers who use it instead of Nutrasweet (now in liquidation as a result in New Zealand and Australia).  Stevia is also anti-bacterial and -even better- good for your teeth! At the moment it is illegal to grow or sell in the UK/EU but that all changes in a month or two…

Crocus sativus
Cultivate Crocus instead of Onions. These beautiful Fall croci yield Saffron in the form of their stigmas – more valuable ounce for ounce than gold. Saffron used to be widely grown in Britain (Saffron Walden, Saffron Hill, etc).  Added to a Martini it releases a natural mood enhancer and in Turkey is used for erectile dysfunction...a real party animal.

Acmella oleracea
Plant borders with Sizhuan Buttons not Daisies. The tiny yellow button flowers of the Acmella oleracea contain alkylamides which are immune enhancers, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial. They also explode in your mouth like natural space dust or pop rocks. Applied in formulations to your skin they act as a natural Botox relaxing the facial muscles and in fact are used in products such as Tri-Aktiline, sold over the counter at Boots.

James Wong making Lemon Balm Cordial
We used the afternoon to show off our herbal beds to James despite the torrential downpour (sorry, guys....). James was entirely diplomatic about it and soaked and sodden as the rest of us....  However we redeemed our character by whipping up a Lemon Balm cordial and passing round the Elderflower Delight.

Herbologist paparazzi encountering Elderflower Delight
We even made a brief appearance in the Twittersphere...and the recipe can be found on James' website.

Thank you for a

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