Why green is a magic colour: the wisdom of James Wong

For celebrity botanist James Wong, plants are a lifelong passion that’s led him to study them, love them and share his house with literally hundreds of them!

In the latest Bites of Nature podcasts he explains to host Jasmine Hemsley the pivotal role plants have played in human existence, providing food for our bodies and minds. You can listen to the episode here.

For anyone who may not know you, who is James Wong?

Oh, tough question! A botanist, who prefers talking about plants than himself, I guess! I trained as a plant scientist at Kew Gardens and I’ve had a lifelong fascination with all the amazing things they’ve done for our species. The phytonutrients in plant foods boost our physical wellbeing, while spending time in green space boosts our mental wellbeing.

What is the best thing about woodlands for you?

The colour green. Human eyes have evolved to detect many more shades of green than any other colour, allowing us to distinguish between different plant species – the toxic from the tasty. In our deep evolutionary history this gave us a distinct advantage, and in our evolutionary present it allows us to enjoy the living mosaic of infinite emeralds in the natural world. We’re built to be botanists. 

Do you think being among the wilderness has meditative or relaxing qualities?

This may sound opinionated, but I don’t think so; I know so. Increasingly, scientific trials are confirming what nature lovers already felt – that spending time in green spaces is beneficial to mental health. Studies show faster healing times in hospital wards with green views, reduced need for pain medication, even improved exercise performance after only limited contact with the natural world.

From moss and sprawling shrubbery to bonsai trees and botanical gardens, your Instagram suggest you enjoy nature both contained and uncontained. Do these different styles give you different types of enjoyment?

It’s so interesting you see it that way! To me they’re one and the same. In photographs I try to capture glimpses of the natural world as I see it, highlighting what grabs my attention the most. When I make terrariums – mini glassed gardens – I’m trying to recreate the same little views of nature, but in living, three dimensions. 

How important do you think it is that gardens stayed open during lockdown?

Parks and gardens are an essential lifeline for mental and physical health – especially for city-dwellers like me. It’s been so exciting to see how many people in these testing times are reconnecting with the therapeutic ability of green space to transform lives. 

How big is your houseplant collection? Do you have a favourite at the moment?

I’m afraid to tell you, it’s reaching rather embarrassing proportions. At last count I got up to 500 and felt embarrassed to carry on. There are mini living walls, planted fish tanks, table-top fountains, a growing collection of terrariums, and even planted furniture. To me, these miniature gardens are little escapes from the outside world where you can get lost for hours.

How did you keep yourself occupied in lockdown?

I don’t want to sound flippant, but I hoped lockdown would be a chance for downtime. But there’s no rest for the wicked, and so filming on my new BBC documentary, Follow the Food, carried on as normal. As did a recording of a podcast I’m making for Kew, and an online course on houseplants due out early 2021. In between the mad rush I have my little indoor gardens to escape to.

Is what you eat a key part of your lifestyle?

If you’re greedy like me, and a botanist who studies crop plants, it’s hard not to be fascinated by food! Eating it, cooking it, serving it, but also growing it, researching it and learning about it. In Singapore, where I grew up, it’s normal for people to gather for breakfast and mostly chat about what you’re having for dinner! That’s me.

We’re veggie fanatics at ZENB. What’s your favourite vegetable and why?

Excellent question. I’m going for sweet potatoes. Because of their beautiful colour and incredible caramelised sweet flavour ancient seafarers transported them from their Amazonian home across the Pacific as far as New Zealand. You know a vegetable is pretty special when people are willing to cross oceans for it.

And finally, what piece of advice would you give to those who’ve struggled in these times of lockdown?

Well, for me, indoor gardening is the ultimate form of therapy. All you need is a pot on the windowsill, and you can create your own little piece of green to get lost in every day – no matter what the weather, or what’s going on in the world outside.

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