FOOD / A leaf from the Doctor's book: Herbs cure many ills, are simple to grow and add savour to cooking. Michael Bateman meets the pioneer herbalist, Dr Malcolm Stuart

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
DOCTOR Malcolm Stuart's face is familiar but unreal, like Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Or like Dr Allinson, the symbol of honest wholemeal bread (wi' nowt taken out). Dr Stuart's is the trusty face adorning packets of medicinal teas called Tranquillity and Vespers, as well as an upmarket (ie, expensive) range of herbal teas: chamomile, peppermint and elderflower.

Whoever he is, this Dr Stuart looks as if he might have been around forever, his bearded face the pastiche of a 19th-century engraving of some rugged equatorial explorer. So it is a surprise to discover that the doctor is still in his forties, and that Dr Stuart's Medicinal Tea, in spite of its Victorian ring, has only been around some 18 months (though already it has captured 10 per cent of the herbal tea market).

Dr Stuart is something of an anachronism himself, a scientist who turned his back on modern remedies to become a herbalist. 'When I started, herbalists had a dreadful reputation,' he says. 'They had hearts of gold, and all that, but basically they were thought to be quacks or a little bit funny.'

Nowinterest in herbs is burgeoning. 'People feel their psychological and emotional appeal,' Dr Stuart says. 'There's a move to simplicity and naturalness and people see that herbs are have aromatic, cosmetic, medical and culinary uses.'

There's been a revolution in the marketplace too. 'If a product doesn't have herbs in it,' he smiles, 'it won't sell.' The Body Shop, proclaiming the moral superiority of natural products, was there first, and now supermarkets, chemists and cosmetic companies are cashing in, offering pungent-smelling herbed shampoos and soaps, back-to-nature potions and pot-pourris.

No television gardening or cookery programme is complete without advice on growing or using herbs. Books are streaming from publishers. When he first wrote his seminal work, Dr Stuart's Encyclopaedia of Herbs and Herbalism, in 1979, there wasn't much else by way of reference. It broke new ground in the thoroughness of its chemistry, and was the first directory to list contra-

indications to herbs, that is: when not take them. It's the most comprehensivework of its kind, listing 420 herbs, all illustrated, and covering their history, biology, chemistry, cultivation, preservation and uses.

Dr Stuart, 47, lives in a tiny village near Cambridge in a large house from which he runs a herbal medical practice with 2,000patients, and a busy consultancy which has taken him to Russia and eastern Europe a dozen times already this year to source herbs.

In his three-and-a-half acres he has created a physic garden that enables him to explore the commercial potential of herbs: in designerdrinks (he created Sorrelle, to compete with Aqua Libra), Body Shop lotions, specimens for horticulture, ideas for supermarket vegetable shelves, and medicinal, herbal and fruit teas.

Dr Stuart was born in Fulham; his father had been an intelligence officer in India, who settled down on retirement to curries, chapattis and home-made wine (from tea leaves and wheat) and his mother was a Yorkshire miner's daughter. Young Malcolm went to medical school and, at 23, with a doctorate in micro-biology under his belt, headed off to Africa as a Commonwealth University lecturer.

For several years he travelled in the bush and there he experienced a Pauline conversion. He became aware of the extraordinary bank of healing medicines that was being used by the locals. 'They worked. I'm not saying they could cure chronic conditions but they had bactericidal extracts of leaves and roots to treat viruses and fever, pre-menstrual tension, skin complaints, snake bite. I'd never studied medical botany and I literally fell in love with it.'

Heconducted an experiment. He noticed the Africans cleaning their teeth with a primitive toothbrush made from a twig which had been flattened so they could rub the teeth and gums. 'It was always a twig from the same tree and I wondered why. I did an experiment on sterile discs using random twigs, taking swabs from the mouth. The twig they chose had powerful zones of inhibition to bacteria. They are so-called primitive people, but they had all these medicines that worked. If it didn't work, they didn't use it.'

His friends thought that he was crazy when he announced his intention to givie up lecturing to pursue medical botany and herbalism. 'They said, 'my God, you've been touched by the sun.' It just wasn't considered a serious subject then.'

When he started, there were hardly any academically qualified people in this line. Inevitably, he found himself linked with other alternative practitioners: homeopaths, reflexologists, aromatherapists. He tried to distance himself: 'I don't want to comment on them but they seem to me people who make a religion of their work.' But he did team up with other herbalists, and was instrumental in improving the standing of The Herb Society (formerly the Society of Herbalists), making its presence felt on television and at the Chelsea Flower Show.

The physic garden is his laboratory and remains a private domain ('you'd never get any peace if you opened it tothe public'). His herb collection falls into no single category. There are potent drugs like digitalis (foxglove) from which the first heart medications were made, asclepias (a powerful-smelling plant that sends bees to sleep) and strange culinary herbs such as Russian liquorice (whose root has the sweetness and flavour and the leaves no taste at all). He's also interested in the tight, curling, orange lily bud of Belamcanda Chinensis, a beauty, and hopes the plant might throw up a 'sport', a flower of a different colour, and thus introduce it to the horticulturalists. Then there are curiosities like soapwort (Bouncing Bet), heavy with soapy substances (saponins) and still used in the cleaning of tapestries.

There are unique trees and shrubs growing in the garden too, and even the odd vegetable. He uproots a rare black-skinned potato and rubs off the dirt. 'One day I'll try and interest Mr Tesco in this.'

He has customers for all kinds of herbs. Perfume oils. Dyes. For dried flowers. For cosmetics. He reckons to have made millions of pounds for others, though not for himself. What, not even with Dr Stuart's Medicinal Teas? No, he'd been creating herb teas for another company when he was approached by Tim Meadows- Smith, a former Haagen-Dazs marketing guru. Dr Stuart's role in the company is to ensure quality, while his MD creates an effective marketing strategy, with ye olde flower prints on the packaging and Dr Stuart's mug on every teabag. He doesn't mind his face being used in this way and he is proud of his teas.

Vespers is very comforting, he says, and his wife, Catherine, a hospital doctor, takes it every night (it contains lime flowers, valerian root, hops, passion flowers and fennel). Dr Stuart is also pleased with Tranquillity (lime flowers, hawthorn berries, yarrow, skullcap, damiana leaf and fennel), which he says he created to calm down his MD, a very stressful individual. It seems to have worked. My wife tried Vespers: the first night she slept like a baby, but the next night it had no effect. This kind of evidence is known as anecdotal. All the teas do taste delicious, however.

Dr Stuart takes neither Vespers nor Tranquillity; he needs very little sleep and prefers to spend his unused energy repairing old cars or building rocky waterfalls.

There must be some herbs he uses. 'Oh, yes. I swear by sage.' The Chinese prized sage tea more highly than leaf teas. It seems to have everything; it's antiseptic, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, useful in treating liver disease, skin problems, excessive sweating, anxiety and stress. And it's not bad with onion stuffing.

'Dr Stuart's Encyclopaedia of Herbs and Herbalism' (Cambridge Physic Garden Press, pounds 15, inc p&p) can be obtained from the East India Company Tea Ltd, Unit 18, Woolpit Business Park, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP30 9UP (0359 242208).

(Photograph omitted)

Comments