Q&A with James Wong

James WongJames Wong is an ethnobotanist studying the relationships between people and plants. He joined us in June 2012 to share his passion and botanical expertise, answering questions on plants and gardening.

James has presented the award-winning BBC TV series Grow Your Own Drugs, which centred around creating plant-based remedies for everyday ailments and has also appeared on BBC's Countryfile. He is working with Ecover, sponsors of this year's RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, as part of its Feel Good expert team.   

Medicinal Plants Edible Plants Gardening 


Medicinal Plants

Q. Funnyperson: Like many gardeners I have rosemary, lavender, thyme, sage and mint in my garden. Do you think a plant such as aloe vera would be hardy in the open air in the south of England? If not, do you know any other such versatile healing plant? Also, can you suggest a hardy plant to grow that is good to make face packs with?

A. James Wong: Sadly, aloe vera isn't hardy in the UK but it can be grown outdoors for most of the year if brought under cover of a bright, frost-free porch or windowsill for winter. There are several other succulent plants, however, that contain gel-like substances in their leaf cores that have been used in similar ways to Aloes for treating burns, insect bites and even used in soothing face packs.

For starters, why don't you give the pretty South African wildflower Bulbine frutescens a go? This aloe relative is used extensively by the Zulu to treat all manner of ills and yet should be hardy in sheltered spots in the South as long as they're given plenty of sun and fast draining soil.

Alternatively, why not try the UK native Houseleeks (Sempervivum spp.) that look like tiny bonsai aloes and will shrug off even the most Arctic chills and look stunning in an alpine garden, trough of gritty soil, or even thrive in the cracks of a dry stone wall.

Q. MashedPoetaytoe: What herbal remedies are good for depression in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers? I've been asked by a few people and can't find any. 

"Unfortunately many plants are not considered safe for use during pregnancy... The good news is that there is a commonly eaten, entirely safe food that contains chemicals with mood-enhancing effects -chocolate."

A. James Wong: Unfortunately, many of the commonly used plants to treat mild to moderate depression, such as St John's Wort, are not considered safe for use during pregnancy.

The good news is that there is a commonly eaten, entirely safe food that contains chemicals with mood-enhancing effects - chocolate. To get the most out of it go for the dark stuff, the higher the cocoa content the better. About 50g should be enough to give you a temporary mood lift. Lovely stirred into a mug of hot milk to create a truly indulgent hot chocolate.

Q. peggyblackett: We have rosehip growing in our garden (I think). How easy is it to make rosehip syrup and does it have worthwhile health benefits? Ditto elderberry syrup: can I make my own and will it be as good as a commercial one? 

A. James Wong: Rosehip syrup is a doddle to make. With the fruit containing up to 30 times the Vitamin C of an orange and a whole host of other antioxidants, it provides a fantastic nutritional boost in the dark days of winter.

To make it, just chuck 500g of freshly picked, washed hips in a blender to roughly chop, and simmer them in two litres of water with the juice of one lemon for 20 minutes or so. Strain all the fibre out over a muslin-lined sieve and pour the orange-hued liquid back into the saucepan and simmer again over a low heat until the volume is reduced by half. Finally, pour in 1kg of sugar, stir until it is dissolved and return to the boil. While still piping hot, pour your finished syrup into scrupulously clean bottles and voila! You are done!

The process is virtually identical for elderberry syrup and, yes, the end result is virtually identical to most shop -ought equivalents, just without the hugely inflated price tag. Don't believe me? Just read the ingredients label! 

Q. Trills: When I grow chillies, the hotness of two chillies from the same plant can be very variable. If you are growing plants with active ingredients that have medical effects, how do you ensure a consistent dose?

A. James Wong: You are right. Factors as diverse as weather, time of day, age of plant, hours of light, length, etc can effect a plant's internal chemistry meaning the properties of genetically identical plants can be highly variable.

There are multiple ways by which commercial manufacturers establish a consistent dose of the active ingredients from fresh plant material, mainly through rigorous testing and constantly adapting the concentration of their formulae. But these can be more trouble than they are worth for home remedy makers looking to treat minor everyday conditions.

In terms of chillies though, if you are looking for maximum spiciness, pick only the fully ripe fruit during the hottest part of the day and avoid watering them for a good couple of days before picking.


Edible Plants

Q. EauRouge: I have limited space left in my garden. What are your top choices for plants that are useful, look beautiful and don't get too huge? If I can eat it too, then that's a bonus. 

A. James Wong: I'd go for a Chilean guava (Ugni mollinae), a beautiful evergreen shrub with scented lily-of-the-valley-type flowers followed by handfuls of scarlet fruit, which taste like a blend of wild strawberries and pink guavas.

Hardy in the UK to at least -10°C and growing to no larger than 1.5m high, the only fussy point these exotic little bushes have is a love for acidic soils, so grow 'em in a pot of ericaceous compost if you live in a chalky area. After this, all you'll have to do is keep them well watered and spoil them with the occasional feeding and you'll have food-mile-free exotic fruit by the fistful.

Q. maples:  A real rookie question. We have just moved into a cottage and have inherited two small raised beds. We would like to grow herbs that flower. Any suggestions to start us off?  

"You've hit on a great idea picking flowering herbs as they are real horticultural multi-taskers, looking just as good as they taste. I'd go for lavender, fennel and chamomile - all delicious, super-easy to grow, highly ornamental and great for wildlife. You won't have to splash out loads of money for them either."

A. James Wong: Not a rookie question at all. You've hit on a great idea picking flowering herbs as they are real horticultural multi-taskers, looking just as good as they taste.

I'd go for lavender, fennel and chamomile - all delicious, super-easy to grow, highly ornamental and great for wildlife. Their flavours also work well together, try blending a sprig of each in a teapot for a fresh, relaxing treat.

You won't have to splash out loads of money for them either. If you have a pack of chamomile tea at home, all you need to do is rip open an unused tea bag, sprinkle it over the bed (the packets contain dozens of seeds) and water it well. The deal is very similar if you have a jar of fennel seed in your spice rack - with tiny little seedlings popping up in as little as a fortnight.

Q. ComeIntoTheGardenMaud: Thanks to the generosity of another Mumsnet gardener, I am growing oca for the first time this year. What other food crops would you recommend that are widely grown in other countries but less well-known in the UK and would be easy to grow here?

A. James Wong: Now here's a woman after my own heart! Have you tried Peruvian Earth Apples (Smallanthus sonchifolius)? Like oca, and indeed the humble spud, these were a prized crop by the Inca. But instead of rich and starchy, the tubers of this hugely productive crop are crisp and sweet - like a delicious fusion of pear and water chestnut. 

Closely related to sunflowers, the plants grow up to 6ft high, producing masses of exotic diamond-shaped leaves followed by yields of up to 10kg per plant - making it easily the most productive root veg you can grow in the UK.

The sweet flavour of the roots is due to the large amounts of a complex sugar called Inulin contained within its tubers, meaning that they are often eaten more like a fruit than a veg. The best news is that this sugar is not readily absorbed by the body, effectively creating (believe it or not) a sugar-free sugar!

You can even juice them and simmer this down to create caramel-flavoured maple-style syrup with all the flavour yet significantly lower calories than the real deal. Truly amazing on top of a big stack of pancakes.
James Wong

Q. Lexilicious: Have you any ideas for non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated hot or cold drinks from easily grown (and fast to regrow) plants? 

If you have any recommended tasty drinks using ingredients with known beneficial properties (eg Fenugreek for lactating) that would be ace. Also, what's the difference between a tea and a tisane?

A. James Wong: Herbal teas can have an undeserved reputation for being a little unexciting and bland, but nothing could be further from the truth. I mean what are regular tea and coffee other than, admittedly extremely popular, herbal teas?

My favourite concoctions for a caffeine-free lift are lemon verbena with its warming sherbety tang, eucalyptus with its foresty, honey-like scent and ginger whose fiery spice is anything but bland. Why not combine them all for a triple whammy of flavour? Served piping hot or sweetened with a little honey or agave syrup and chilled over ice, they are infinitely more exciting than boring old lemonade.

NB: As these are all commonly eaten everyday herbs I should imagine they are all 100% safe to take during pregnancy, but please do run them by your doctor first to be absolutely sure.

There is absolutely no difference between a tea and a tisane. Tea originally referred specifically to tisanes made from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), however the two words are now used pretty interchangeably to mean a drink made from infusing plant matter in hot water.



Q. Bagelmonkey: We have just moved into a rented house and for the first time ever we have a bit of outdoor space. We'd love to grow something, but every plant we've ever tried to look after indoors has died. What can we grow in a pot outside that's pretty much self-caring and toddler-friendly? Something edible would be a bonus.

"Mint despite being relatively expensive to buy in the supermarkets is possibly the easiest edible to grow in the UK. As its leaves lose much of their fragrance within hours of being cut, the homegrown stuff really knocks the socks of anything you can buy."

A. James Wong: I'd go for mint. Despite being relatively expensive to buy in the supermarkets it is possibly the easiest edible to grow in the UK and as its leaves lose much of their fragrance within hours of being cut, the homegrown stuff really knocks the socks of anything you can buy.

It'll be happy in sun or shade and won't require slavish devotion to watering or fertilising. There are even a huge range of types to pick from, each with a subtly different fragrance. I particularly like lavender mint and pineapple mint for example, whose names are pretty spot on in terms of flavour.

Just remember to repot your plant each year as they are such rampant growers they can soon exhaust the space available, becoming a little tired and lanky. To do this all you need to do is tip the plant out of its pot each spring, cut the roots in half with a breadknife and replant one half in the same pot with some fresh compost. The other can be potted up, making a great gift for foodie friends.

Q. Ethelb: I want to grow veg in two raised beds with herbs alongside. Are there any good herbs to grow to act as disease and pest deterrents?

A. James Wong: The classic pest deterrent plant used by most organic gardeners is the French marigold (Tagetes sp.) whose leaves are packed full of highly aromatic chemicals with both insect repellent and insecticidal properties.

What most of us Brits don't know, however, is that in their Latin American home several marigold species are known far more as culinary herbs than just a pretty bit of garden ornamentation. I particularly love the ferny leaves of Tangerine Gem whose flavour matches up perfectly to its name, with an exotic pineapple / citrus tang. Why not also try Tagetes lucida, whose leaves have a tarragon-like flavour that is prized in Mexican cooking?

Garlic, if you can call it a herb, is another fantastic option due to its high content of Allicin. It deploys this insecticidal chemical like a fragrant cloud to protect not just itself but its immediate neighbours from the ravages of pests. In fact, as Allicin is found throughout the onion/garlic family, any other closely related plants should work well too. Try spring onions and garlic chives, for example. 

Q. ppeatfruit: I have been given a Melaleuca tea tree, it's about 1ft high in a small pot on a south-facing terrace in mid south-west France. I'm going to repot it. Which would be the correct potting medium? I know it needs to be taken inside in the winter. Will it grow fast? Does it need feeding? I give my house plants leftover coffee and teas mixed with rain water and never have had a failure. Do you reckon it will be happy with that? 

A. James Wong: Tea tree comes from scrubby Mediterranean-type habitats in Australia and does best in similar sharply drained growing media, rich in sand or grit. Depending on how far south you are in France, you might even be able to get away with it outdoors when it gets a little bigger, as these half-hardy plants are able to shrug off short chills down to as low as -5°C.

For best results, site your little sapling in full sun in the warmest site you have spare - planted against a south-facing wall or sat in a conservatory would be perfect. If kept happy, they are relatively quick growing and should reach as high as 6ft within three to five years. They don't require particularly heavy feeding, so I'd say your coffee solution would be perfect. 

Q. MousyMouse: How do I contain 'takeover' plants that have already overtaken the garden -mint (five different varieties) and woodruff. They are everywhere and in the lawn, smells lovely when cutting the grass. 

A. James Wong: Wow, what a great problem to have. It may take a while but, ultimately, no plant - even the notoriously invasive mint - will be able to survive constant hacking.  

Snipping it right back to ground level six times or more each year should eventually knock it back enough to keep its megalomaniac tendencies under control. Once you have got it in check, it will survive being cut down up to three times per year without hampering its recovery.

In the meantime look up a good mint sauce (or mojito) recipe and make enough for everyone in your street!

Last updated: 9 months ago