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Forget a trip to the chemist: try the garden

Need a painkiller, tummy soother or something to help you sleep? Join the people who are growing their own remedies. Rob Sharp learns how to use plants as everyday drugs

The daisy-like, soothing qualities of chamomile; the juicy roots and joint-oiling properties of turmeric; an emotionally restorative sprig of watercress. These herbs are all familiar bit-players in our gardens. But what about transplanting them from flowerbed to kitchen and casting them in a starring role?

Herbal medicine does not have to mean palate-busting sludge. We must be able to combine a love of food and a passion for herbal medicine in a 21st-century, entertaining manner.

James Wong has the answer. He is an ethnobotanist, someone who looks at the relationship between people and plants. Wong, 28, tries to tackle people's everyday problems with common or garden herbs, which we can grow or buy from herbal medicine stores, spruced up and rendered palatable. These might include, say, a bilberry and marsh- mallow munch for aching joints, or a rose and chocolate shot for anyone in need of an anti- anxiety pick-me-up.

"A lot of people assume plant-based medicine is different from conventional medicine," says Wong. "But actually the difference is culturally constructed. Whether an active ingredient is found in a petal or a pill, it is still doing the same thing. Up to 50 per cent of the serious scientific medicine that you find in your local chemist is derived from plants. And most of these are found in your back garden. Why go to a high-end spa when you can grow it yourself?"

So are you in need of alleviation for your aches or ailments? Here Wong discusses a litany of complaints, and the herbaceous remedies that can straighten out an assortment of aches and pains.

Skin complaints

Moisturiser possibly revitalises our epidermis; it definitely kills our wallets. But what about replacing synthetic creams with something natural? "Lots of people think that you need a Swiss pharmacological lab to make skin cream, but actually it's just a mix of oil and water," says Wong. He recommends using almond oil – known to improve the complexion, soften the skin, and available from most health food shops – mixed with water. Heat it in a pan with oats, which can help cleanse the skin, and beeswax, a natural emulsifying agent, before putting into a blender. "You'll see a million and one oat creams in your local chemist," continues the ethnobotanist. "They do have a physiological benefit."

He also recommends growing aloe vera plants (which in this country will only grow indoors, near a sunny window), to help deal with minor burns.

We should also try mixing it with some marigold flowers, also used to treat skin complaints. "You can just snap off the aloe leaf from the plant," he says. "They are like living sachets; the outside is like apple skin, the inside has all this goo, it's marvellous."

Digestive trouble

Everything from chamomile to fennel and peppermint – all of which grow well in British soils – can calm our tummies. "Peppermint capsules are one of the leading over-the-counter remedies for indigestion," says Wong. "Part of indigestion can be uncontrolled spasms in the muscle in the digestive tract's lining. Peppermint contains anti-spasmodic chemicals and can help relieve trapped wind."

One way of administering these is in self-made tinctures – basically various herbs soaked in vodka. "Alcohol is a good solvent," he says. "A lot of the time it's more effective than water. A tincture is essentially just vodka with loads of herbs in it that has been left for a couple of weeks." Also use this technique to combine angelica – a perennial herb that can be found in much of the northern hemisphere and is known to be a stomach-settler – with chamomile. In addition, the bark mucous of slippery elm – a tree native to North America extracts of which are available in shops – coats the mucous membranes of the oesophagus and acts as a protective barrier against stomach acids.

Immune system

Echinacea is now widely thought to have a beneficial effect in decreasing our chances of catching a cold. A research team at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Connecticut published evidence in The Lancet in 2007 suggesting that taking echinacea can halve our chances of getting a cold and reduce the length we have a cold by one-and-a-half days. Even better news is that it is common to many back gardens and people don't even know about it. "Echinacea has relatively recently been introduced to the UK," says Wong. "You don't need to spend a fortune." Cut it, rinse it, chop it, put it in some vodka to make a tincture.

If that doesn't whet your medicinal whistle, if you suffer from hay fever (like a fifth of the British population), one solution is mixing nettles with honey in boiling water. "Nettles contain chemicals with anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory properties," adds Wongs. "These are thought to go some way towards depressing the immune system's allergic response." The sting is lost when the nettles are boiled. In addition, Wong claims locally-produced honey gives those suffering from a flower-pollen allergy some immunity from local pollens.

Coughs and colds

Honeysuckle – would you believe it, both anti- inflammatory and antiseptic – can also be used as a gentle painkiller to treat sore throats and headaches. It grows in most parts of the world. "The fact that it has independently emerged as something to treat colds with, both in native American and Northern European cultures, for example, is a good indication that it must be of some use," says Wong. During the Chinese SARS epidemic in 2003, punters queued around the block to buy it from herbal remedy stores.

Wong suggests combining it with jasmine to make a jelly, or if that's not your cup of restorative tea, try something a little more unconventional. "Thyme is an antiseptic and expectorant [something that dissolves mucus], and garlic has antibiotic properties," says the ethnobotanist. "It helps to combat catarrh and soothe inflamed bronchial passages." The two can be combined by soaking in oil and then steaming with beeswax; afterwards the resulting blend can be applied as a chest rub.

Muscles and joints

"Turmeric, which is native to south-east Asia, can be used to soothe arthritic joints as well as psoriasis [an auto-immune disease which affects the skin]," says Wong. "The great thing about it is that it stains according to its concentration, so you can tell easily how much you've used." One way of making it palatable is to borrow an idea off the Malay chai-type drink Teh Halia, aka "ginger tea". Chopped, strained and simmered with pepper it can create a soothing tea (pepper helps the body to absorb curcumin, the active joint-alleviating ingredient in the turmeric).

Suffer from swollen joints? "Vinegar can help bring out the bruises and reduce swelling," adds Wong. Mix the vinegar with chopped sage, yarrow and plantain leaves to create liquid that can be used in a compress. Heat horseradish and mustard in a pan, then strain into vodka to create a deep-heat treatment to invigorate the circulation.

Emotional and hormonal treatments

We've all been there, run-down after a 70-hour week, dribbling into our cornflakes. What's the solution? Sooth your worries away with soup. "Watercress is a powerhouse of nutrition," advises Wong. "It contains a lot of different chemicals. It's good for the immune system, and contains high amounts of iron and vitamin C." Chop together with spring onions, garlic, ginger, and heat in a pan with potatoes, before pureeing in a blender. Wong has also devised an "uplift tea", a general mood-enhancer containing 50g each of dried St John's wort, lemon balm and dried lime flowers.

For pre-menstrual syndrome, his "time-of-the-month tea" should help women stay calm and balance the hormones. It's a blend of 30g each of lady's mantle and lime flower, with 15g each of yarrow flowers and skullcap.

If you're having trouble coping with a particularly meddlesome hangover, why not go to the top? You could do worse than employing a remedy based on the World Health Organisation's formula for rehydration salts. Break up rosehips with a pestle and mortar, add salt, heat in an oven for 90 minutes at 80C before mixing with bicarbonate of soda. The resulting mixture will fizz on your tongue. "It has mild pain-relieving properties, and the anti-oxidants in it may help you feel better," says Wong.

And don't be afraid to hit the chocolate, when the moment dictates. "It's a popular psycho- active, and has a mood-lifting effect," says the presenter. "Some sources would argue that there is a possible link to endorphin production. Endorphins are known as endogenous opiates for a reason".


Herbal medicines are perfect for kids. Chamomile bath-milk used at bedtime could be just the thing to help settle them down for the night. "Steeping chamomile in almond oil will give you a source of vitamin E and it also has traditional uses as a mild anti-anxiety aid," says the ethnobotanist. "It can also help reduce inflammation." Adding coconut cream, a natural emulsifying agent, helps mix it in with the bathwater. "It's also a great thing for them to be involved with in the kitchen," he concludes. "It's fun and smells great."


Wong argues that many of those practising traditional medicine would have trouble distinguishing between a 'cosmetic' and a 'medicine'. "Nowadays there's a trendy term which a lot of beauty ads use, which is 'cosmaceutical', which is supposed to make you look better by having a biological effect," he says. One example is seaweed; the stuff we buy in the chemist is "just boiled-up kelp," he claims. Simply blend seaweed then mix with beach sand for a scrub.

If you are after an aid to circulation, as well as something to put on a dry scalp to soothe and tone it, you should chop together rosemary, thyme and lavender and mix it with coconut oil. Strain, and pour into a bottle (it's also a handy anti-dandruff hair oil). Rosemary has multiple uses. "It generally grows on cliff-tops by the sea," concludes Wong. "It likes salty winds, which is unusual. Just rub it on in the bath and rinse it off like a posh, sweet-smelling sea scrub."

Grow Your Own Drugsreturns to BBC Two from tonight at 8pm. The accompanying book is published by Collins, £16.99. Please check with your doctor to see if you are allergic to any of the above ingredients before using in a medicinal context.