Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Holiday Spices

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

Many of us find time to make a few special Holiday treats this time of year, while many more of us find time to eat them! There are so many scents and flavors associated with Holidays, especially from spices used in baked goods. It might surprise you to know what part of the plant or what corner of the world these spices call home.

Vanilla: Most of us don't give vanilla a second thought. You might think of vanilla as a very "plain" flavor. But in fact, vanilla has a colorful history and its complicated production is anything but plain. There has been debate on the exact date of the discovery, but most estimate vanilla use dates back at least 1,000 years.

Vanilla extract comes from the fruit of the Vanilla orchid, of which there are over 100 species known worldwide. Most of the vanilla grown commercially is the species Vanilla planifolia, also called "Madagascar-Bourbon" vanilla produced in Madagascar and Indonesia.

Producing the Vanilla bean takes at least nine months, and is only the first step in vanilla production. Vanilla orchids, and fresh Vanilla beans have no vanilla scent. It is only after a complicated three month curing process of heating and cooling that the distinctive scent and flavor of vanilla develops. The finished product is sold, or may be processed into vanilla extract. Considering the amount of labor that contributes to the finished product, it's no wonder that vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.

Cinnamon: This familiar spice is harvested from the inner bark of several different species of trees in the genus Cinnamomum, a tree native to South East Asia. Branches are harvested, and the woody outer bark removed. A hammer is used to beat the inner bark, loosening it. The inner bark is then removed in long strips about three feet in length. These strips curl naturally as they dry. These curled strips are called "quills". The quills are cut into smaller pieces for sale. These are what most people call a cinnamon stick.

Cinnamon has been produced for thousands of years. Records dating back to 2000 B.C. indicate it was imported into ancient Egypt. Cinnamon was a highly prized spice in the ancient world. It was commonly offered to God in religious ceremonies and its use in daily life was reserved for only the very rich and noble. The source of cinnamon was a mystery to most of the world until at least the Middle Ages; spices like cinnamon were very valuable, so those who were able to obtain these spices typically guarded their sources fiercely.

The flavor of cinnamon varies depending on the species of Cinnamomum it is obtained from. The cinnamon typically used in cooking is produced from grinding the cinnamon quills, or sticks into powder. Most types of cinnamon can be ground easily in a coffee or spice grinder at home, but some are so thick and coarse they will damage home grinders.

Nutmeg: This common addition to eggnog and pumpkin pie is produced from the seed of several different species of the genus Myristica. This plant is an evergreen tree native to Indonesia.

Nutmeg trees do not produce seeds until at least seven to nine years after planting, and don't reach full production until they are at least 20 years old. These trees are dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants. Only the females produce seed. It takes six to eight years of growth before it will flower, revealing whether it is male or female.

Historically nutmeg has been used for thousands of years, and was highly valued because of the dangerous travel involved in obtaining most spices from faraway lands. In Elizabethan times it was believed that nutmeg would ward off the plague.

Allspice: Allspice is the dried unripe fruit of Pimenta dioica, a medium sized tree native to Mexico and Central America. The English gave it the name "allspice" in the 1600's, thinking it tasted like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

Another name for allspice is Jamaica pepper. It is historically an important spice in Caribbean cooking. The leaves of the allspice trees are also used in cooking, much like how a bay leaf is used. Christopher Columbus introduced allspice to Europe following his second voyage to the new world.

Cloves: The familiar scent of cloves comes from the dried flower buds of the evergreen tree Syzygium aromaticum, native to Indonesia. The name clove is derived from the Latin 'clavus', meaning nail, which the clove vaguely resembles.

Cloves were another spice highly prized by Europeans. Historians report that during the 17th and 18th centuries, cloves were worth their weight in gold in England.

Historically cloves have been used for a wide range of medical applications.

Modern science has shown the most abundant compound in cloves is Eugenol, which is responsible for its distinct aroma. This chemical has demonstrated anesthetic and antiseptic properties.

Though many of these spices make us think of being home for the Holidays, they actually come to us from all corners of the world. We take for granted the modern availability of these spices, but historically they were often hard to obtain and beyond the budget of all but the most wealthy. But today most of us will enjoy these spices and more in our Holiday celebrations. Enjoy!

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