HERBS AND SPICES
- uses - embalming, medicinal, food preparation, religious
- Roman Empire
- New World
- modern era
- Important families - botanical information
CHAPTER 8, p. 192 ff.
For the purposes of this course we will consider herbs and spices to be the same. Usually ones from
leaves are called herbs (except for many members of the Apiaceae, which are fruits) and many tropical
leaves are still called spices.
More than $200,000,000 per year business. U.S. imports more than $80,000,000 per year. Several
important spices came from the Americas: Allspice, capsicum peppers, and vanilla.
A number from the Mediterranean: Most of the common herbs we use.
Some from colder areas of Eurasia: Caraway, horseradish.
Others from S.E. Asia: Most spices.
In "primitive" cultures today, many other plants are used, but the major spices tend to be used
pretty well all over the world.
Uses: Food preservation and to disguise the flavor of bad food. Embalming, perfumery,
For embalming in Egypt back to 2500 B.C. Many of the plants used in Egypt were not native and even
at that time were imported. They used myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, cumin, anise and marjoram (among
other things) for embalming.
Incense in China before 2700 B.C. Medicinal (e.g., ascaridole from Chenopodium ambrosioidesas
Spices and history
We take spices for granted and, although they are expensive today, they are inexpensive compared even
to 200 years ago. Spices were probably the most important factor that lead to
the discovery of the New World and to exploration of the Old.
Garlic and onions were used as far back as 4,500 years ago. By 1000 B.C., there was trade in spices
in the Near East. By that time, India had already become a center of trade for spices.
By about 1000 B.C., camels and caravans were going from east to west. Also to Egypt. The Arabs
became important in the spice trade as early as 500 B.C. There was much misinformation. The Arabs
said they got most of their spices in Africa.
Under the Greeks, Alexandria became a center for spice trade. By the time of the Roman Empire, India
had become quite important. The Greeks and Romans not only imported spices, but silk from China.
They imported many types. Nero burned a years supply of cinnamon at one time.
From 600 to 1100 A.D., the Moslems dominated. At that time, that was the civilized part of the
world. Mohammed was a spice trader as a young man.
The Crusades (the first in 1096). In 1099, Jerusalem was conquered. Spices and information about
spices began to reappear in Europe. Further, the crusaders that visited the Near East developed a
taste for spices in their food.
The fourth crusade left from Venice, in 1204. Nicolo and Maffeo Polo to Asia in 1260. In 1271,
Marco Polo went back with them and visited China. (He died in 1324). He cleared up where many
spices came from.
Genoa and Venice became wealthy city states because of the spice trade.
In about 1400, the Portugese got interested. Prince Henry, in 1418, founded a Naval School. The
Portugese believed they could get to the Orient by sea. In 1445, they reached Cape Verde.
In 1446, the Portugese rounded West Africa. In 1453, Constantinople was captured by the Turks and
that source of spices was cut off. The Turks did not want to trade with infidel Europe.
In 1471, the Portugese crossed the equator. In 1494, the Pope divided the world between Spain and
Portugal. In 1498, Da Gama reached India. By 1560, the overland routes again opened up.
In 1600-1625, the Dutch ruled Indonesia and got a virtual monopoly on the spice trade. They
controlled the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) and as that was a major source of many spices, they were
able to get just about any price they asked for spices. They took Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1636. They
controlled the spice trade for almost 200 years.
In 1760, they destroyed large amounts of spices to drive up the price. Their monopoly was
finally broken in the late 1700's. In 1799, the Dutch East India Company collapsed.
The English took parts of India and all of the Eastern possessions of the Dutch except Java. In
1824, they signed a treaty. By the early 1800's, the English controlled most of the spice trade.
Since 1900, many of the spices have been replaced by artificial substitutes. Many of the common
spices and herbs are listed on page 195. The sources of production of many of these are listed on pg.
Most spices and herbs owe their properties to the presence of volatile compounds known collectively
as "essential oils". They make up the aroma or essence of the plant.
Volatile oils are often found in special plant cells and glands. They are found in all parts of
plants and the contents of the different parts often differ. Some spices are used as extracts and
others are used as whole plant material.
Herbs and spices of the Mediterranean area
The mint family (Lamiaceae or Labiatae) is especially common in this part of the world and also as a
source of herbs from there. See the diagram on page 200.
Among these are rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis,) thyme (Thymus vulgarisand other
species), oregano (Origanum vulgare) and marjoram ( O. majorana).
The popularity of Italian food (which goes back to World War II) is responsible for the use of
oregano in the U.S. Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is also widely used. Sage (Salvia
officinalis) has been used since Greek times. Most sage, today, comes from Yugoslavia. It was
often used medicinally.
"Mint", usually spearmint (Mentha spicata) or peppermint (M. piperita) are widely used.
The essential oils from these plants are extremely important for flavoring hundreds of products,
e.g., toothpaste, mouthwash and chewing gum. Much in U.S. grown in Indiana, Michigan and Oregon.
The other major family of Mediterranean herbs is the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae. In this group are
parsley (Petroselinum crispum) and chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium). Dill (Anethum
graveolens) and coriander or cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) are widely used as a fruit
and as the leaf material.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare),cumin (Cuminum cyminum),anise (Pimpinella anisum),
celery seed (Apium graveolens), and caraway (Carum carvi) are all used as the fruit.
The essential oils in the fruits are borne in special oil glands. See diagrams on pg. 201, 202,
The Brassicaceae or Cruciferae are also very important as herbs. The seeds of Brassica nigra
and B. alba have long been used.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) also comes from this family. This plant is native to
Northern Europe. Other herbs from the Mediterranean include: tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus,
Asteraceae or Compositae), laurel ( Laurus nobilis, Lauraceae), saffron (Crocus sativus,
Iridaceae). Saffron is the dried stigma of the flower. It is extremely expensive.
These herbs were pretty much available in Europe before trade with Asia became important.
The exotic spices that fostered European exploration came mostly from India and southeast Asia.
Bay leaf (Laurus Nobilis)
Cinnamon is the bark of several species of the genus Cinnamomum. Used by the Egyptians 3500
years ago. Used in the Bible as a component of annointing oils. Nero burned all that was
in Rome when one of his wives died. See the diagram on page 297 and 298.
True cinnamon (C. zeylandica) is the most desired of these. Cassia (also called cinnamon in
many countries) is from C. cassia. In this case not only the bark, but also the buds are
often used. Mostly from Sri Lanka and the Seychelles.
Cinnamon tree in botanical garden
Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum, Myrtaceae), the flower buds of a tree probably native to the
Spice Islands, was one of the spices on which the Dutch had a monopoly. About one half of the world's
supply of cloves is used each year for making cigarettes in Indonesia.
Cloves were imported by the Greeks through Alexandria before the Roman Empire. Used in China before
the time of Christ. Used in dentistry to deaden toothaches. (Only cloves and capers come from
unopened flower buds).
Nutmeg and mace
Both nutmeg and mace come from the same tree (Myristica fragrans, Myristicaceae). The fruit
is a drupe that splits open at maturity and exposes the red aril. When dried, the aril is called
The inner part of the seed is called nutmeg. Nutmeg is both toxic and hallucinogenic.
Today widely grown in the West Indies, Sri Lanka, and the Moluccas. Dioecious and most male trees
removed as soon as possible.
Both cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and ginger (Zingiber officinale) come from south
east Asia. Ginger comes from the rhizome and cardamom from the seeds. They were both introduced
into Europe by several hundred years B.C.
Ginger comes from West Africa, India, and especially Jamaica (considered the finest). Turmeric
(Curcuma domestica) is also used for flavoring and color.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
In terms of quantities traded, black pepper is still the most important spice. It was also an early
important spice and probably the most important in leading to the discovery of the New World.
Black pepper is made by picking the green fruits of Piper nigrum(Piperaceae) and processing
them. This process involves fermentation. White pepper is made from ripe fruits that are soaked and
lightly crushed to remove the fleshy part.
The U.S. is the world's leading user of black pepper. See the figure on page 210.
Produced in Indonesia, India, Brazil and Madagascar.
Spices from the New World.
Allspice (Pimenta dioica, Myrtaceae) is from the same family as eucalyptus. We use the seed. Columbus brought back allspice to the Old World. It is still only grown in the New World.
This type of peppers (Capsicumspecies) are now widely cultivated in many parts of the world.
Probably about 5 species are cultivated. They have become an integral part of cooking in many
parts of the world.
Vanilla is the fermented fruit of an orchid, Vanilla planifolia(Orchidaceae). About the
only plant in this family that is important as a food plant. See diagram on page 212.
The plant is native to Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The Aztecs used it to flavor
chocolate (along with chile peppers).
The plants are usually hand pollinated. Good quality vanilla is expensive. Madagascar, Reunion,
and Seychelles are major growers.
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Revised February 2005
© David S. Seigler, Integrative Biology 363, Plants and Their Uses,
Department of Plant Biology, 265 Morrill Hall, 505 S. Goodwin Ave., University of Illinois,
Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA. 217-333-7577. email@example.com.