Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A Lesson with James Wong

The Grow Your Own Drugs star and Chelsea Gold Medal Winner, James Wong, joined us in class today.

James flew up specifically from his London-base to join us for one day, and we greeted him with the best of the Scottish weather - torrential downpour, freezing temperatures and blistering winds. On his first visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh, he had come to tell us about his favourite herbs of the moment and to share his knowledge in making lotions, potions and edibles.

In standard Herbology style, the day was started - with a slightly larger than normal class - with teas and then the class dove straight in and began making an Elderflower & Hibiscus Turkish Delight, with beautiful Sambucus negra ‘Black Lace’ flowers that Catherine had collected.

Which, upon completion made an appearance as a grown-up twist on an old-school kid's favourite on James's website.

Born and bred in Singapore and Malaysia with a Malaysian father, James came from a culture where there was no barriers between food and medicine. Where everything is used interchangeably for the health and benefits of the individual.
An example of this interchangable information is Pineapples: eating in the morning is seen as a no-go as it upsets digestion, but you would eat the fruit if you'd consumed a heavy meal the night before or even if you needed to "reset" your digestion, and of course, you would never eat the fruit on an empty stomach as it causes gastric upset.

Then training as an Ethnobotanist at the University of Kent, James was able to focus his own interests, on how medicinal plants were used by different cultures across the world. Throughout his travels the familiar signs of European colonisation had been left, with some of our friends, including Dandelions, Nettles, Daisies and common Hedgerow plants being used in local medicine. 95% of ethnomedica, being our Northern species, has been introdcued and due to their presence in an unnatural environment, they have become pioneer species and are seen as "weeds" due to their fast and widespread growth - similar to the issue of the rabbit "plague" in Australia in 1788, when a foreign species over-populated an area as it had no immediate competitors.

The Rabbit Plague

The passing of plant material in cultures is beneficial but at times can have down-sides, as the related information might not transfer as well e.g. prunes - if introduced - learning the effects first hand and involving that within their traditional medicine.

His research, both independent and alongside the Kew Garden experts, is committed to the global exchange of knowledge, including herbal and medicinal secrets from even the smallest, close-knitted shamanic communitites. James also actively advocates changing what we grow in our own gardens, not only allowing us to help reap the health benefits but the wealth benefits as well - if we so desired.

His top five favourites of the moment are:

Replace Gooseberries with Kiwis

Not the standard Kiwi, Actinidia deliciosa, but the smaller Actinidia arguta (one of the 96 other kinds of known Kiwi's - most of which haven't made it to the West). It is a prized ornamental shrub, which yields small strawberry-size fruits. The Kiwi is traditionally known as the Monkey Peach in Asian societies, as they are seen as a famine food and have an extremely low status.
Whereas New Zealand import the Kiwi fruit and market it for its antioxidant potential - if re-imported into Asia the Kiwi is then seen as a high-class fruit. Asian communities are anti-home goods and will prefer to pay the money, as a status symbol known as the "face" system, for imported goods.

Kiwi's have a very low sugar content but a high acid content, which is useful for breaking down proteins, and is exceptionally good as a meat tenderiser. In cosmetic products, it is also useful as an exfoliant, as it breaks down protein, removes dead cells - glycolic acid (used in chemical skin peels) is similar to fruit acid - this could maybe be useful for scar tissue, fine lines and acne scarring.

Grow Wasabi instead of Cabbage.

Wasabi, it is assumed due to its flexible usage in Japan, is meant to be grown in sub-tropical climates, however, it prefers cold, wet, shady places in preferably chalky soil. Making it a particularly suitable to be grown in Scotland - however Duncan Ross finds it quite hard to grow in his base in the Black Isle.
The entirity of the plant is beneficial for you, with the retail sale prices being incredibly high - the stems selling for £65 in London , if of course they can be found, and as for the leaves, they can't be found at all in the UK.

The wasabi flavour has been known long before we knew the plant and is actually a mix, containing nothing related to the plant, of mustard and horseradish.

The global demand for Wasabi clearly out-strips the supply, due to the difficulties with growing it, and therefore if you managed to cultivate Wasabi in your garden, even the smallest yield would provide financial benefits.

Change your Mint to Stevia.

Stevia rebaudiana - approved safe this year in the EU, and will be legal to sell as a food product in the UK by the end of the year. Originally from Bolivia, it has been used in Japan to sweeten Coke for over 30 years, where other sweeteners are banned.

It is 200 times sweeter than sugar with a similar calorie content to a sprig of Mint.One teaspoon of the dried powdered leaf = 1 cup of sugar. It doesn't work chemically like sugar does - like artificial sweetener - can't preserve with it. Stevia is also anti-bacterial and due to its fluoride content is good for teeth.

Cultivate Crocus sativa 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.

Crocus sativa produces flowers from October to November, and while doing so produces the World's most expensive spice as their stigmas - more valuable ounce for ounce than gold. Saffron used to be widely cultivated in Britain (Saffron Walden, Saffron Hill in East London, etc). Hardy Spanish Saffron is cheaper - Spanish labour is cheaper than English, as each flower needs to be hand picked, with each thread of Saffron individually selected and dried.

A modern use for Saffron is in a martini, which soaks the threads in vodka/gin, in this way it provides antioxidants and is a mild mood enhancer. Saffron also has the same chemical make-up as Pfizer, a form of Viagra that relieves erectile dysfunction.

Turf out Daisies in favour of Sechuan Buttons.

Otherwise known as the toothache pant, the electric daisy, the alien plant, the eyeball plant; the marketing name for Acmella oleracea is "electric buttons". The reason behind its many names is 1. it was commonly used for toothaches as it has a numbing effect, and 2. when consuming the plant it's like an electric shock in your mouth - compared to licking a 9 volt battery - some Chef's use the buttons in their recipes i.e. Heston Blumenthal. The flavour cannot be pin-pointed and is described as "mixed" and "strangely interesting".

Sechuan buttons are highly potent and concentrate in alkylamides, which increase white blood cell count (not conclusive). They are also anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial.

Sechuan buttons also have a botox-like effect i.e. temporarily relaxes muscles, and is marketed within Tri-aktiline which is an "instant deep wrinkle filler".

They are easy to grow, another plant that prefers the damp, cold climate that Scotland can offer.

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We then, despite the torrential downpour, and only really because Leigh wanted us to show James the Nursery beds... dragged ourselves out into the Scottish weather and up to the Nursery. Everyone tried to hold it together as we stomped back and forth trying to keep vaguely warm while discussing our plots with James.
We also took a quick walk into the Gardens to show James some of the sights, before gathering handful upon handful of Lemon Balm, so we could redeem the weather by concocting a Lemon Balm cordial when we returned to the classroom.

James making Lemon Balm cordial (Stolen from Herbology 101)

Then passing round the Elderflower delight, and a small glass of the Lemon Balm cordial, we attempted to stop dripping as the class came to an end.

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