Plants are potent, whether they grow halfway up the Himalayas or in a Wandsworth window box. What you can buy from the chemist - throat lozenge, headache pill, tummy soother - you may well be able to make at home, in a different form but using the same active ingredients.
© GAP Photos/Friedrich Strauss
"Think of your back garden as a free pharmacy," says Kew-trained ethnobotanist James Wong, who, in his BBC2 TV series and book of the same name, Grow Your Own Drugs, offers simple plant remedies to cure low-grade ailments such as flatulence (Four Winds tea made with mint, chamomile, fennel and caraway), sore gums (tooth powder with sage leaves and sea salt) and hangovers (whizz together kiwi fruit and feverfew).
In Malaysia and Singapore, where Wong grew up, using plants as remedies is nothing new; these days, though, we have lost touch with this kind of hands-on approach. "People are conditioned to think you have to trek to the Amazon to find a rare plant and then you have to hand it into a Swiss pharmaceutical institute so it can be turned into a drug," says Wong, "but this is a healthcare system that has evolved from cultures that didn't have access to any medical healthcare."
To cynics, Wong points out that more than 50 per cent of the top 50 drugs used today, including digitalis, morphine and penicillin, are derived from plants, and of the leading drugs for cancer treatment developed over the past 30 years, more than 70 per cent are plant-based.
- © GAP Photos/John Glover
- © GAP Photos/Jo Whitworth
Design: del Buono Gazerwitz
'Think of your back garden as a free pharmacy'
In town and suburb, gardeners have the edge when it comes to foraging for natural remedies, though Wong, who uses his mum's back garden in south London to grow useful plants, from angelica (anti-inflammatory) to valerian (soothing, sleep-inducing), isn't averse to pinching a few sprigs of elderflower from forays in Regent's Park for a mean cough syrup.
Many of us unwittingly grow ingredients for home remedies, and can profitably use the foliage, flowers and, sometimes, even the root.
"The echinacea tincture in your medicine cupboard can be made with the purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, that you might have in your garden," says Wong. "When I dig up and divide the plants in autumn, I chop up two tablespoons of root, pour on vodka and leave for two weeks before using the liquid."
However, there is no need to have flower-packed borders to be your own alchemist. If your lawn is full of pesky plantain, the well-known weed, prise it out. Plantain is a remedy for insect bites and stings and makes a natural antihistamine. Rub the leaves on to the skin directly, or use a plantain cream concocted by Wong that incorporates beeswax and sunflower oil.
If your borders are a wasteland where nettles congregate, rejoice. The leaves are highly nutritious and boost natural immunity. Nettle soup is the familiar remedy - wear gloves when handling the bristly leaves - but Wong also suggests a delicious nettle pesto, made with the young tips. Cook a handful in boiling water for about two minutes, drain, then whizz with grated Parmesan, two chopped garlic cloves, a handful of pine nuts and about 80ml of olive oil.
© GAP Photos/Rob Whitworth
‘Sit among aromatic herbs and flowers on a sunny day, when the volatile oils are at their most potent, the colours at their most vibrant, and feel your spirits soar’
All garden herbs have active ingredients, with a lesser or greater degree of usefulness; you just need to know their properties. Daisy-like feverfew is effective in treating migraine; you need only two fresh leaves in a sandwich.
Artemisia absinthium, the silvery foliage plant that is also known as wormwood, makes an excellent potpourri-style insect repellent; Wong mixes the dried leaves with equal amounts of rosemary and sage leaves.
The French turn it into the brainrotting digestif, absinthe: that's one remedy that guarantees adverse reactions. .
A safer bet is Wong's recipe for rosemary wine. Bruise five sprigs of fresh rosemary and steep them in one bottle of good-quality wine.
Replace the cork, and shake it daily for a fortnight. Drink one small wine glass daily after dinner to boost your memory, and doubtless your mood, too.
© GAP Photos/Frederic Didillon
Lemon balm, chamomile, mint and fennel leaves have always been used in tisanes - steep flowers and foliage in boiling water for a few minutes - but I'd rather soak in Wong's pom-pom bath of chamomile flowerheads than drink the stuff, any day.
His suggestion of passion flower tea as sedative merits throwing a tea party just so you and your guests can each marvel at the complex beauty of one whole passion flower floating on water in a china teacup, presumably before gently nodding off.
In your garden, a patch of aromatic herbs and flowers could supply you with a collective rescue remedy; it might include lavender, the strongly fragrant apothecary's rose, Rosa gallica officinalis, pot marigold Calendula, purple sage, blue borage, honeysuckle and hops.
No need to turn them into distillations or decoctions, tisanes or tinctures: just sit among them on a sunny day, when the volatile oils are at their most potent, the colours at their most vibrant, and feel your spirits soar. That's the real medical miracle.