“I grew up in Malaysia and Singapore where there is a different attitude to plants than you have in the UK,” he explains. Friends from the UK were just not as excited about them. I think it’s because often their first introduction to horticulture is a boring trip to a nursery to pick up a few trays of bedding plants, a bit like carpet samples.” He continues, “In Asia, plants are not just used like soft furnishing, they’re also useful and provide solutions for everyday problems. They had to have a function to have a place in the garden; we say they have to be good to eat or treat,” he continues passionately.
The ethno-botanist (a scientist who studies plants and their uses) admits that the remedies he creates are not strictly his own. “I just put a bit of a twist on a long standing recipe,” he explains modestly. “It is well known that peppermint and fennel seeds relieve trapped wind for example. On my Christmas Special (screened on BBC2 on 16th December) I used those herbs to make sugar mice which is a much nicer way to take the medicine. They are quick and simple to make, only have 4 ingredients and are a good way to deal with too many sprouts. I have also created a very trendy cocktail for indigestion,” he adds, “It tastes really good and would be at home in any Cocktail bar; I’m very proud of it.”
“Most weed species are medicinal,” he continues, “I did a lot of research in Ecuador and was surprised to find out that they favour the introduced European species like dandelion, plantain and nettles. People still think that medicinal plants are exotic and can only be found up the Amazon but most people will have the basic species in their lawn,” he advices, “and if you are a lazy gardener, they will also be organic.”
A regular guest presenter on BBC’s Country File, James continues to share his plant knowledge. “There are very few plants with no recorded use. I’ve never eaten Holly for example but it has spiritual and ornamental qualities as secondary uses. My favourite plant is probably lavender,” he admits when asked, “it’s not considered very cool or trendy but it has so many uses, from easing anxiety to calming a rash. And in the 19 Century it was popular as a culinary herb, like sage and parsley, though it has an unusual taste.”
Whats the green fingered guru’s own garden like? “It’s fallen by the wayside a bit lately,” he admits, “I’ve been busy filming a new series of Grow Your Own Drugs and am also designing and creating a big Show Garden for the Malaysian Tourist Board at Chelsea next year.”
“My own garden has lots of tropical effect plants that remind me of Singapore and the really funny thing is that as growing up in the tropics, everyone wants the traditional English Gardens with the nice lawn, snapdragons and bulbs in the borders. Mum is actually from Newport in South Wales, he shares, and when I used to come and visit her I would always take back lots of bulbs and cottage garden type plants. They never did very well in the heat though,” he admits adding enthusiastically, “People still pick up a little bit of my Welsh accent occasionally,” he laughs. “I like that, it makes me feel very cosmopolitan.”