James Wong is a popular botanist working in the UK. He is also an author and television presenter on gardening programs.
The world depends on plants,
for every breathe of air we take,
the food we eat.
Plants are the basis of our lives.
And the global pandemic of Covid 19,
has emphasized the importance of nature and greenery
for our mental well-being
as well as our physical health.
In the past five years
there has been a greater interest in plants
among younger generations due to the internet.
Today, plant lovers across the world
are sharing their plant passions
on social media platforms
such as Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.
James Wong is a botanist.
Famous in the UK, as a presenter of
several TV shows about horticulture,
he's also written 6 bestselling books,
and has a weekly column in a newspaper.
He is the idol of a younger generation
who are creating and sharing
exciting new techniques via the internet.
Direct Talk met up with James at
Kew Gardens in London – in the Plant house –
the oldest of its kind in the world -
to hear how an exciting revolution in plants
is taking place.
The Power of Plants
I think one of the fascinating things about plants
is they're so beautiful,
it's quite easy to dismiss them
as just being aesthetic objects.
Because they look so beautiful,
they smell so nice,
or they taste so great,
it's quite easy to just think
that they're sensorial in benefit.
But plants are the solution to every single problem
that faces our existence on the planet today,
from climate change to food insecurity
to potential pandemics.
Every major problem that faces humanity
can be solved with plants.
So I think it's so important that
people really understand
that, you know, they look great,
but there's something beyond that.
There is an estimated 400,000 plant species on earth,
and at Kew Gardens, around a thousand
are named each year by science for the first time.
And even in everyday plants, chemicals are
being discovered that were not known about before.
With advancements in scientific analysis,
the evolution of plants is providing
more solutions for human diseases.
If you are looking to find
biologically active chemicals,
the natural world is an incredible place to look,
because plants have been
evolving for billions of years
to create these chemicals with actual functions.
Because unlike animals, plants can't run away
or hide from external threats,
so they've evolved this
completely different evolutionary strategy
which is essentially chemical weapons.
They create sunscreen to
defend themselves if there's high UV light.
They've created hydrating gels to keep water
inside them to stop them from drying out.
They've created really elaborate toxins
to stop things from eating them,
and many of these compounds
can be harvested and harnessed
to be deployed on our bodies.
And we're only just beginning
to tap the potential in this.
They provide the solutions to
every major problem that faces humanity,
they look beautiful,
every part of our anatomy and our basic instincts
have been programmed by
millions of years of co-evolution with plants.
Human eyes could detect
more green shade than any other colour,
because we're built to be botanists.
We've been built to be able to distinguish
between toxic and tasty plants
and our vision is a result of that.
So, the very way we see the world is
down to co-evolution with plants.
James Wong grew up in Singapore,
but he moved to study in the UK in his teens.
His father is from Borneo,
his mother is from Wales.
He trained as a botanist
at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew,
the home of the largest and
most diverse botanical collection in the world.
So, when I was 8 years old
my mum took me to Kew Gardens for the first time,
and I remember walking through the door
and just being hit by
kind of the steam and heat and humidity.
And I remember saying to my mum:
"Mum, is this what heaven looks like?"
And you know, 30 years later I'm still here.
I come here like at least once a week.
It is one of the few places
that I really feel at home.
At Kew, I just feel a real sense of connection,
it's the one time
I can really feel like I'm myself.
I think my heritage really influenced how I garden.
I grew up in Singapore.
Gardening was not really a thing
in Southeast Asia,
at least in my family, it was considered
like you know, I remember telling my grandma
that I wanted to be a gardener.
She said how could you.
You have to be a doctor or a lawyer a proper job,
you can't be someone
who just sweeps up leaves for a living.
Whereas when I told my Welsh grandma about it
she thought it was the most exciting thing ever,
it was a kind of a high status and exciting job.
It is often said that horticulture is
something people appreciate it as they grow older.
But in the UK
a younger generation are turning to greenery
to help with issues of anxiety.
And for many who are sharing
small spaces without gardens,
plants can provide a small oasis of calm at home.
In his own small London flat
James lives with 500 plants
which he credits with
making him feel happy and less stressed.
I think there are real three drivers
behind this massive explosion
interest in growing houseplants all over the world,
and I think one of them is in a world
that can seem increasingly uncertain,
maybe even frightening,
it provides some sort of
stability and familiarity with that.
Also, in a world which is increasingly virtual,
it's something that's real and tangible,
something that where
your actions can have an effect
and you can see the effect of that.
And finally, I think all over the world,
particularly for urbanites in areas
where there has been lockdown,
people have really begun
to appreciate the value of nature
and quite how important nature is in our lives.
So I live in a really small flat in central London,
it's a one-bedroom flat,
and I share it with 500 house plants,
and it might sound like I'm boasting,
I'm quite embarrassed actually about the fact,
because when I have people come through,
you know, like gas man to come and fix something,
I live in permanent fear of
my landlady ever coming to visit.
I started out with, you know,
a normal amount of plants, I had one or two,
and I find there is something
incredibly therapeutic about it,
I mean, people talk about
the benefits of outdoor space,
and they talk about the benefits of gardens,
houseplants have so much more
of that benefit because
most of the benefit from being around plants
has come from seeing them.
Almost everyone has a home,
almost everyone can have access to a windowsill.
If you have a glass of water and
a friend who has one,
all you need is scissors to cut a piece off
and you can start being a gardener
by dropping it in that glass of water.
In the UK, there has been a reported 500 percent rise
in plant sales over the last two years,
with a wider range of exotic and
rare plants available from across the world.
There's been a really exciting shift in horticulture,
in the I guess the last five years.
You know, once upon a time
when I would go to a gardening event,
I was the youngest person by 20 years.
And then suddenly now this whole new generation
has really embraced plants.
So this I think is absolutely
just ridiculously beautiful.
It's a begonia, Begonia Luxurians.
It looks like straight out of the movie Avatar,
and I think those are the kind of plants I like.
I like plants where they're atmospheric
and I think in a kind of maybe
immature way or a childlike way.
I mean this could have a dinosaur hiding behind it.
When you step into an environment like this,
what's really cool about it is
an ecosystem that could never exist in nature,
you're having plants that come from
opposite sides of the world, right next to each other.
So I love this Lord Howe Island palm,
which is from a tiny island in the South Pacific,
right off the coast of Australia.
Then right up next to it,
you have a Brazilian plant over here,
these come from both humid environments.
But next to it you might have
something from the deserts of Chile.
And you can really take all the ingredients,
all the wonders of the natural world,
and put them in one place
to create a garden of Eden.
If you have a window where you live,
you can create your own version of paradise.
James is well known
for his love of Japanese gardens,
particularly the innovations in planting,
and spiritual components
associated with Japanese design.
So one of my favourite things about Kew is
the fact that you have the
whole world of horticulture in one place,
and this is one of my favourite bits within Kew.
And the place that inspires me the most is Japan.
It has a combination of approaches to
outdoor horticulture and indoor horticulture
which really resonate with me.
The idea of recreating natural spaces,
making everything asymmetrical,
not filled with flowers
but really focusing on the textures
that you see in the natural world,
materials like pebbles and stone
and wood that are just
as important as the plants.
And I think Japan is up for experimentation
and trying new ideas in horticulture in a way
that we don't really do in the west,
particularly we don't do in the UK.
I love these big rugged chunky boulders here
that represent mountains and streams,
so you've condensed the whole universe
into a small space.
And that's fundamentally what gardens are,
but Japanese people are
just I think so much better at it.
James also has a big Instagram following
where he posts inspiring pictures of
his travels through nature,
his own plants,
as well as unusual species from around the world.
He regularly draws attention
to his favourite social media sites,
which he shares with other plants lovers.
Some of his favourite sites are
from gardeners in Ukraine,
and he recently shared pictures of a young woman
who was tending to her one rescued plant
in a bomb shelter with the war raging outside.
So, one of the things that I think
is amazing about the internet
and particularly things like social media
is its power to connect
likeminded people from all over the world.
And I've learned so many different things
that I would never have learned
about five years ago.
And I think to me
the most inspirational account I follow
is a lady called Anna who live in Kyiv in Ukraine.
She could have been in Stockholm,
she could have been in Brooklyn,
you know, it was a very international idea,
and her feed in the last ten days
has dramatically changed.
Her latest picture is a
picture in a darkened-out room
with a single light bulb
hanging by a thread and a cable
she has one houseplant
which she's carefully nurturing,
and that's because she's currently
in a basement of her apartment block,
as bombs rain down,
she's really carrying on
making the world a more beautiful place.
It is a real act of defiance
to care for something and carry on
and continue sharing that with the world.
I found it probably the most inspirational
gardening image I've ever seen.
As a natural born teacher,
James's passion for plants has led him to fulfil
his dream of devising an online plant course
which anyone can watch at home or on their phones.
In Indoor Gardening Masterclass,
he gives tips and insights from
his 20 years of experimenting with plants.
And he shares his current obsession.
James has been developing his skills
creating indoor miniature gardens
He believes that they can provide huge comfort
and are easy to create
when you have no outdoors to enjoy.
So I would recently asked to create a course,
an online course
that people could see all over the world
and teach people not only how to grow houseplants
but how to create miniature ecosystems.
And it was really exciting to me
the ability to share that knowledge.
You know, because on Instagram I post my successes,
I have had many failures with houseplants,
I just don't post those.
So it's great to be able to
to really show people how plants can work,
but also for them to be able to
learn from my mistakes that
they don't have to create the same mistakes.
But I think it's so important, you know,
if you've learned things as a horticulturist,
you should be generous with that,
you should be able to
share with other people that knowledge
to make the world a more beautiful place.
So a terrarium basically is like an aquarium
but with earth,
so aquarium means enclosed water,
terrarium means enclosed earth.
And it's a technology
that was really developed in Victorian Britain
that's largely been forgotten
about until quite recently.
And what they are usually miniaturised landscapes
and what they have in common
is that they are kept under glass,
and the glass creates a kind of a
stable humid environment in which to grow plants.
In a troubled world,
James believes that gardening
creates meaningful connections
between people from different cultures,
and that it is the act of creating that matters,
not the result.
I think we focus on the idea
that you have created something beautiful,
and you do do that.
But I think it's what happens
inside along that process,
what happens to you
because when you cultivate and care for the plant,
you're really cultivating and caring for yourself.
And the amazing thing is
you get to share that with other people,
and it just has the most transformative effect.
Gardening is cheaper than therapy
Gardening is cheaper than
therapy and you get a beautiful home.
What I find really inspiring about
a new generation of gardeners
who are connected by the internet
is the power to really learn
from other people across cultures.
You know, some teenager who's growing something
in an apartment in downtown Jakarta,
versus some rich landowner who might be in Brazil,
and they create completely different things
but they're able to connect for really the first time
and share that information.
People who come from different races,
different classes, different cultures,
and they can all commune with one important thing,
which is the love of nature.
If there's any big social leveller out there,
any big cross-cultural leveller:
it's the love of plants.
To garden is to have hope for the future.