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One Scientist's Prescription: Grow Your Own Drugs

James Wong thinks you should grow your own drugs.

No, we're not talking about the illicit kind. We're talking about a living pharmacy of plants from your own backyard: fennel and rose hips; echinacea and dandelion; horse chestnuts and nettles.

Wong is an ethnobotanist. He trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, and he's written a medicinal recipe book called Grow Your Own Drugs, an offshoot of his BBC television series.

Plant Prejudice

In his book, Wong looks at plants as bright chemical factories.

"I think so many people have this stereotyped idea of what herbal medicine is," Wong tells NPR's Melissa Block.

He adds, "I think they've very much got a big black line in their minds that separates serious, conventional, tested, scientific medicine on one side and slightly airy, fairy, away-with-the-hippies — you know — natural-but-probably-doesn't-work, plant-based medicine on the other."

But that "black line," Wong says, is a cultural idea — not a scientific one.

"To me as a scientist, whether a chemical is found within a pill or the cells of plant is really irrelevant — that's just packaging," he said.

Hijacking Plant Weapons

The recipes in Wong's book offer remedies for a wide range of ailments — from sore throats to hot flashes to head lice.

"As with all herbal remedies, they don't necessarily come with guarantees. And if you've tried conventional stuff and it hasn't [worked], I don't think there's any harm in giving it a go," Wong says.

Wong says humans have been battling with insects for only a few thousand years. Plants, however, have been at war with insects for millions of years.

"Over that huge period, there's been time for them to evolve all sorts of unusual strategies, many of which are natural chemical weapons — insecticides — that exist in the environment that can be used in all manner of ways," he says.

In his recipes, Wong says he hijacks what plants have evolved for themselves, and he uses that to treat humans and animals.

Be A Responsible Experimenter

Wong offers a few caveats: Know what plants you're using. Also, don't self-diagnose.

"There are all sorts of interesting solutions that are found in the plant world, but you need to be responsible. You need to make sure that you have a proper diagnosis," he says.

Wong is not against conventional medicine. In fact, he says he has no qualms popping aspirin. But he says people can consider herbal medicine as part of the solution.

"It's very much not about abandoning conventional medicine," Wong says. "It's almost like a useful complement to it."

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