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Plants Used as Spices

Spices have long enlivened food around the world, helping to add interest and giving life flavour. Many of the spices that we might use in our kitchens come from climates and environments that are very different to our own, especially if we reside in a temperate climate.

However, we may still be able to grow some spices – either exotic spices for which we create the right conditions, or native plants which also offer some of the same, or similar characteristics.

The list of spices around the world is far broader than we may imagine if we take a look at supermarket shelves. And considering more unusual spices can broaden our minds and open our eyes to the amazing flavours of the world around us.

What Do We Mean By Spices?

First of all, it is worthwhile taking a moment to think about what we are actually talking about when we use the term 'spices'.

Spices are substances that are typically used primarily to add flavour to food, which come from the seeds, fruits, roots, or bark of plants. Often also aromatic plants, the plants that provide us with culinary spices are also used medicinally, or in religious rites, cosmetics or perfumery.

Spices are often used in the same sentence as herbs, but are distinguished from herbs by the plant parts that are used in a culinary setting.

When we talk about using herbs in cooking we are usually talking about the leaves, flowers or stems of plants used for flavouring or as a garnish. If other parts of the plant are used then we tend to refer to these things as a spice. Note, however, that under this definition, some plants may provide both herbs and spices for the table.

Why Grow Spices?

Where the climate is conducive or we can provide the right growing conditions for the spices that we commonly like to include in our diets, or native alternatives, this is a wonderful way to further increase our self-reliance, self-sufficiency and resilience.

Rather than importing spices from exotic climes, we can reduce our carbon footprints and grow our own flavour-enhancers closer to home – perhaps even in our own homes and gardens.

While evidence showing the health benefits of certain spices is currently not entirely conclusive, many argue that consuming spices has a positive and beneficial effect on the health. In any case, consuming spices in food can allow us to reduce salt intake, which has been proven to be extremely beneficial for health health.

One other interesting thing to note is that the chemicals that derive from plants that are present in these aromatic spices can also lead to benefits within the garden or planting scheme. Spice plants can frequently make good companion plants can be beneficial in terms of the balance of the natural ecology of a permaculture scheme.

Where to Grow Spices

Where you will grow spices will of course depend on which spices you intend to grow, and also on where you live and the conditions to be found there.

If you live in tropical or subtropical climes, then you will likely be able to grow a great variety of common culinary spices outdoors where you live. These are often excellent to integrate into a food forest design, as well as to grow in and around a vegetable garden.

The spices that we are often used to eating may not always grow successfully outdoors where we live. But that does not necessarily mean that, even when we live in a cooler temperate climate, we cannot grow potentially grow at least some of these plants at home.

To give an example, I would not stand a chance of growing ginger outside where I live in Scotland, but I can grow a little ginger on a sunny windowsill inside my home. The same is true for a number of other common spices.

Even where spices cannot be grown outside where you live, there is sometimes potential to grow the indoors, in a conservatory or covered porch, or in a greenhouse or polytunnel covered growing area where you live.

But one other important thing to remember and think about if you live in a cooler temperate climate region is that there may be other plants in your area that can provide spices. You may well be able to find some native edibles that provide similar tastes to the spices that hail from exotic climes, so this is something else that is well worth exploring.

For example, in my forest garden I allow hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), a native wild plant or 'weed' to grow. Though usually considered an unwanted species of plant, hogweed (not to be confused with dangerous giant hogweed) is actually very useful.

Its seeds can be used as a spice with a citrusy tang and hints of coriander seed and cardamon. This is my favourite wild spice that grows in my area.

Other spices native to the British Isles to replace foreign exotics include spignel which has seeds that taste like curry. Water pepper gives a burning heat, pepper dulse seaweed is intensely peppery, sea rocket and other wild brassicas can give a mustardy kick and wood avens roots share a flavour profile with cloves. Gorse flowers have a mild coconut flavour in spring and early summer.

In North America and elsewhere, there are plenty of other 'wild' or native species that can provide spices to replace some of the spices imported from far afield. It is definitely a good idea to learn more about the native plants where you live to discover their properties. Often, we may have wonderful spices under our noses and not have a clue.

Of course, when we choose plants for spices that are native to our areas, then we can grow these easily where we live, since these plants will be well suited to the local conditions to be found there.

We might include spice producing plants native to where we live in a native planting scheme such as a wildflower meadow, native wetland, xeriscaping scheme, native woodland etc...

We might, of course, include them in a perennial bed or border dedicated to herbs and spices, or alongside ornamental flowering plants. Or we might include them as we create our plans and designs for a forest garden or food forest scheme.

Tips for Choosing Spices to Grow

When thinking about which spices you might consider growing where you live, it is important to think about the different types of spices you might grow, their environmental needs and the environmental conditions that you can provide, and the properties and uses of the various different spices that you might be considering.

Types of Spices to Grow

One way to categorise different spice plants is to think about their form, and which type of plant that come from. We might get spices from trees, shrubs, climbers or a wide range of herbaceous plants.

Another way to categorise spices is to think about which part of the plant it is that we use as a spice. We might divide spice plants, therefore, into plants with:

  • Seeds used for spice: such as black pepper, cumin, coriander, fennel, mustard and nutmeg.
  • Flower buds used for spice: such as cloves and capers.
  • Stigmas used for spice: such as saffron.
  • Fruits used for spice: such as a broad variety of peppers.
  • Arils used for spice: such as mace.
  • Barks used for spice: such as true cinnamon and cassia.
  • Roots & rhizomes used for spice: such as ginger, turmeric, and galangal.
  • Resins used for spice: such as asafoetida.

Understanding Environmental Needs and Environmental Conditions

It can also be helpful to divide spices that you might grow according to their native range (beginning with the broad climate zone in which they grow). Understanding whether a plant is native to tropical, subtropical or temperate climates will allow you to begin to understand whether or not this is a plant that you might be able to grow outside where you live.

Of course, we can then hone in on the specific environment in which a certain spice plant grows to see whether or not we can provide those environmental conditions where we live. Remember, even on cooler temperate climate zones, certain exotic spice plants might potentially be grown in a polytunnel or greenhouse, or indoors.

When trying to replace exotic spices with native species, we also need to understand the environmental conditions they need, and work out how we can provide them.

The Properties and Uses of Different Spices

When thinking about which spices you might grow, it is also interesting and useful to think about the properties of those different spices you are considering and how they can be used.

Of course, when looking at and thinking about spices, we are usually mostly focusses on their culinary use. We might use them to add flavour, or course, but they can also add fragrance, and alter the colour of dishes in desirable ways.

Some spices can also be used in other ways, such as in household cleaners or in natural health and beauty products, or in perfumery, for example. There is some overlap between spices and aromatic plants worth bearing in mind.

When thinking about the properties and uses of different spice plants, it is also important not to overlook the role that certain spice plants might potentially play in the garden or food producing scheme. Remember, certain spice plants might be ecologically beneficial – helping to keep pests at bay in an organic garden.