How to Grow Spices

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)

Cardamom is a member of the ginger family. It is a rhizomatous perennial that forms a dense clump of stalks with a delightfully warm and spicy fragrance and scented flowers. The dried seedpods are added to sweets, Persian coffee, curry powder, chutneys, pickles and many Asian dishes. The flowers normally only appear in warm to tropical climates. The leaves can also be used – as a wrap in which to steam, bake or barbecue sweet potato, fish, pork and chicken, imparting a wonderful flavour. Cardamom is more cold-resistant than most members of the ginger family and will survive several frosts. After the last frost, cut back winter damaged foliage and a new crop of lush leaves will soon emerge. It can be propagated by rhizomes planted about 5 cm below the soil surface in spring. It should be grown in a generously enriched, moist, well drained soil in a sunny position.

Galangal (Alpinia galanga)

Also known as greater galangal or Siamese ginger, this member of the ginger family is native to South-East Asia. It forms a rhizomatous clump of several stalks, each 2 m long, with long, sheathing leaves. The rhizome is used for cooking, and its white or pale yellow flesh has a characteristic spicy fragrance with a hint of pine. Lesser galangal, sometimes called resurrection lily (Kaempferia galanga), is a different plant, whose rhizomes are also used as a spice; they have a peppery ginger scent. The plant forms a low-growing clump and flowers at ground level. Galangal grows best in light shade in warm temperate to tropical regions, and prefers a well-composted, moist, freely draining soil. It can be grown from rhizomes – planted about 5 cm deep in the soil in spring – or bought in pots from specialist herb and tropical plant nurseries.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger is a rhizomatous perennial species that originated in tropical Asia. It forms a 90 cm high clump of stalks with alternate sheathing leaves. The flowers, borne in club-like spikes, are yellow tipped with purple. The plump, pale yellow rhizomes, called ‘hands’, are the part used for cooking. Ginger requires warm temperate to subtropical conditions, a sunny position and a rich, moist, well-drained soil. The rhizomes are harvested in late summer to autumn for using fresh. It can be grown from segments of plump rhizomes; in spring, plant the segments, each with two to three buds, about 5 cm below the soil surface. Alternatively, you can purchase pot grown plants from specialist herb and tropical plant nurseries.

Star anise (Illicium verum)

Chinese star anise is an essential ingredient in five spice powder, widely used with duck, chicken and pork in Chinese cooking; in garam masala, a spice mix from Indian cuisine; as well as in the cooking of Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. In Europe it is used in several popular liqueurs and aperitifs, including pastis, absinthe, anisette and, reputedly, Sambuca and Galliano. It shares with the completely unrelated herb anise the substance anethole, which gives it a strong aniseed flavour. The tree is a small evergreen from southern China and Vietnam with attractive ivory, star-shaped flowers.

The spice is derived from the dried star-shaped seedpods of the green fruit. It requires a warm climate, full sunlight and high humidity. It can be raised from seeds planted in spring or cuttings taken in early autumn. Two other species may be confused with Chinese star anise: Japanese star anise (I. anisatum) and North American anise (I. floridanum). It is essential that
you purchase the true Chinese species. The Japanese species has fragrant leaves that are used as an incense but that are highly toxic if ingested. The two species look quite similar, and Japanese star anise is a popular ornamental garden shrub in Australia.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Turmeric is a member of the ginger family. It is a rhizomatous clumping perennial to about 1 m tall with green, lightly aromatic, sheathing leaves. The pale yellow to orange flowers are borne in dense spikes. The rhizome is used as a spice. It is slender and branched, with a bright orange flesh that has a spicy, earthy flavour. Turmeric is also used as a food colouring, giving a golden colour to rice and other dishes. In cooking, use a 2.5 cm piece of freshly harvested turmeric rhizome for every 1?2 teaspoon of the dried spice recommended in the recipe. Peel the rhizome, cut it into pieces and process with a little water in a blender.

Turmeric is propagated in spring from rhizomes planted about 5 cm below the soil surface. It requires arich, moist soil, a long, warm summer and a sunny position. Pot-grown plants can be purchased from specialist herb and tropical plant nurseries. The plants die back underground each winter and will tolerate occasional frosts. Vanilla (Vanilla fragrans syn. V. planifolia) Vanilla pods come from a tropical orchid that is quite easy to grow in humid tropical conditions, such as in northern Queensland, in a lightly shaded site. It also requires distinct wet and dry seasons, as flowers are initiated after the dry period. It can be grown successfully in a glasshouse. The orchid is a climbing orchid – up to 7 or 8 m high before it begins flowering – so some support, such as a pole or lattice, is essential.

In nature, aerial roots help plants to climb 15 m. But when under cultivation, plants are trained downwards from the top of their support to a convenient height for pollinating and harvesting. Plants are propagated by tip cuttings that are 1 m or more long and have the bottom two or three leaves removed. Insert in humus-rich, mulched soil at the site where they will grow. Alternatively, cuttings can be rooted in pots of loose soil mix prior to planting out. The fragrant, waxy, greenish yellow flowers are initiated after the second or third year of growth and need hand pollination. To do this, use a toothpick tip to transfer pollen from the stamens to the sticky tip of the female stigma. From 30 up to as many as 100 or more long green pods follow on mature vines if pollination is successful. Pods are harvested between six and nine months later, when the tips begin to yellow. The beans are fermented and dried for use, the final colour being a very dark brown with an oily sheen. Plants are pruned after harvesting to remove weak and old stems.

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