Herbs and Spices II


Spices, herbs, perfumes are linked historically, chemically, and in terms of their physiological effects on humans. Initially, there was very little distinction between them. Aromatic woods and resins were burned to produce scented smoke tat would carry offerings of entreaties to the gods. Mummified bodies were scented with spices and herbs, and ancient perfumes often consisted of fragrant herbs crushed into oil or wine. Although they essentially have no caloric value, herbs, spices, and perfumes add variety and interest to life and also attest to the strength of acquired food habits and social mores.


Plants sued as herbs or spices or in perfumery are chosen because they produce, in small quantities, characteristic flavors or odors when added to food or other substances.

Most of the chemicals responsible for these distinctive tastes and smells are compounds known as essential oils, a term derived from "essence" or a perfume substance. Also known as volatile oils: volatile refers to the property of diffusing readily into the air, where the oils may be detected by human scent and taste receptors.


Volatile oils are found in specialized cells, gland, or vessels that can occur in any or all parts of a plant. They can be secreted or held in pockets that dot various plant surfaces.




Essential oils

1.       These are carbon-containing (organic) molecules that are not soluble in water, but are soluble in alcohol. Essential oils are volatile, i.e. capable of evaporating into the air at room temperature.

2.       The characteristic fragrances of aromatic plants are due to the presence of essential oils, the volatile substances that contribute to the essence or aroma of certain species.

3.       Essential oils are widely distributed throughout the plant, in different plant organs, but are most commonly found in leaves, flowers, and fruits, where they occur in specialized cells or glands.

4.       An essential oil is considered a type of secondary compound (secondary plant product), a compound that occurs in plants but is not critical for the plant’s basic metabolic function.

a.       Primary products would include products such as sugars, amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids, etc., without which plants could not exist.

5.       Most essential oils are classified as terpenes, a lg. group of unsaturated hydrocarbons.


Functions of essential oils

1.       Essential oils in flowers serve to attract pollinators by their alluring scents, while the function of essential oils in other plant parts has been debated.

2.       At one time it was believed that many essential oils, present in stems, leaves, and roots, were merely waste products of metabolism that accumulated and were sequestered to prevent their interfering with normal plant processes.

3.       Many compounds are synthesized by specialized pathways, suggesting that there has been selection for their production, perhaps as deterrents to the growth of competing plants. (Allelopathy requires that essential oils in the leaves be washed onto the surrounding soil. The chemicals in the soil might subsequently prevent the germination of seeds or cause the death of encroaching plants, reducing competition for water, nutrients, and light).

4.       Now it is thought that many essential oils may play a significant role in discouraging herbivores, especially insects, and inhibiting bacterial and fungal pathogens, which may help preserve food against spoilage.

5.       Flavors improve the palatability of food, and for this reason may have increased in importance with humans’ greater dependence on grain-based diets. (There is no evidence that spices in the quantities that people consume them have an adverse effect on humans).

6.       In evolutionary past, the flavor of secondary compounds (essential oils) - spices - likely stimulated feeding and contributed to the consumption of a varied diet.

a.       Condiments may help stimulate appetite in this way or thru direct physiological effects. For ex., active ingredient of chili peppers, capsaicin, activates the gastrointestinal system by stimulating salivation, gastric secretion, gut mobility. It can aid digestion and calm smooth muscles.

b.       Many condiments (spices, herbs) also have ancillary medicinal uses and their deliberate uses as food additives may have originated in this way (gin and tonic, quinine water).



1.       Herbs - generally aromatic leaves, or sometimes seeds, from plants of temperate regions. Botanically, it is derived from ‘herbaceous’ referring to a plant that is either an annual or that dies back to the ground each winter and re-emerges each spring; plants that do not develop woody, persistent tissue. Usually used in the fresh state.

2.       Spices - aromatic fruits, fls., bark, or other parts of the plant of tropical origins. Some restrict spice to the seed, stem, or root of a plant; others refer to them as dried plant materials containing essential oils.

Spice is a culinary term, not a botanical category - it doesn’t refer to a particular kind of plant or plant part. Spices come from various woody shrubs and vines, trees, aromatic lichens, and the roots, flowers, seeds, and fruits of herbaceous plants.

Cookbooks generally distinguish between seasonings (spices used in food preparation) and condiments (spices added after food is served).

Salt is sometimes thought of as a spice, but it is a mineral.



Economic importance: spices as impetus for European exploration


It may be easy to take for granted the large repertoire of spices and herbs commonly found in supermarkets and used in many American kitchens.

 Today the average American consumes about 2 lbs. of herbs and spices annually.

Yet, only a few hundred years ago many common spices would have been rare or exceedingly expensive.

Several would have been virtually unknown in Europe.

Although spices and herbs have lost their former importance as items of commerce, the value placed on them was once high enough to promote exploration and set into motion a struggle for power between European nations.


  1. We do not know when humans first began using spices and herbs as flavoring agents, but there are records of the use of garlic and onions as far back as 4,500 years ago.
  2. Spices were used at a very early time for religious ceremonies, embalming, and to produce fragrant smoke during ritualized cremation of the dead. Ancient Egyptians used spices such as cinnamon and cassia, obtained from Arabs, not only for cooking but for embalming and cosmetic purposes. (The practice eof embalming goes back 5,200 years in Egypt).

a.       Descriptions of the mummification practice details use of cinnamon, cassia, cumin, anise, and myrrh among other plants used for stuffing body cavities.

b.       Demand for these spices and herbs in Egypt eventually led to an important set of trade routes to Southeast Asia and china that crisscrossed the Middle East, Arabia, and India by 1400 BCE.

c.       The Ebers Papyrus scroll (3,500 yrs ago) lists medical uses of many plants including anise, caraway, cinnamon, and cassia. An active spice trade must have been in existence.

d.       Ancient Greeks and Romans were already using black and white pepper, ginger, and other spices in cooking.

3.       During the Middle Ages, in the Roman Empire, despite the fact that spices were still in use in perfumery and medicine, their culinary use reached its culmination. During the 13th century, there was an abundant supply of cassia, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, and mace in all European markets. However, the trade was in the hands of Arabs (Arabs controlled Alexandria - present-day Cairo - , the spice trade center for the Mediterranean) and Europeans were unable to achieve direct contact with the islands where the spices grew.

                Efforts to reach these spice islands by sea - overland routes were proving to be too long, difficult, and dangerous - created the establishment of schools of navigation.

                Very late 13th century, early 14th century - tales of Marco Polo’s journeys describing spice plantations in Java (Indonesia), pepper stores in China, cinnamon and ginger on the Malabar coast of India - whetted European appetites for the riches of the exotic Orient, and lured more and more travelers eastward in search of spices.

                Determined to find a sea-route to the land of spices, and seeking to break the Venetian-Muslim trade monopoly on spices, Prince henry of Portugal (Henry the Navigator), established a school of navigation in 1418, gathering together the leading astronomers, cartographers, geographers, and navigators of his day.

                In this Age of Exploration there was:

                                Bartholomew Dias (1486) discovered the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, proving a sea route to India was possible.

                                Christopher Columbus (1492) inadvertently disembarking in the New World, carrying away its riches (yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, maize, capsicum, and tobacco), thinking he had reached the East. Capsicum peppers and allspice were two examples of spices that Columbus brought back to Spain.

                                Vasco da Gama (1497) reached the west coast of India

                                Ferdinand Magellan (1519-1522) discovered a western route to the Spice Islands (Moluccas) in his (and Juan Sebastian del Cano) circumnavigation of the globe.


The wealth brought to Italian cities by their spice trading activities helped foster the cultural rebirth known as the Renaissance.

The desire for spices was so strong that Europeans sent ships into all the unknown (unknown to Europeans) parts of the world in the attempt to discover the countries where spices grew. The occupation of these spice countries started the epoch of colonial power which was only ended some years after the Second World War.


It is interesting to reflect on the flavors people now associate with different cuisines and the native homes of the spices and herbs that produce those flavors.

                We may associate hot red peppers with Indian and Szechwan Chinese cooking, but peppers couldn't have appeared there before 1492. They are a product of the New World.

                Cumin and coriander are integral parts of Mexican cookery, but both were brought to the New World by Europeans.


Herbs - are usually the aromatic leaves or sometimes seeds of temperate plants.


Mint Family - (Lamiaceae)

1.       Almost all members of the mint family have fragrant herbage, and many are the dominant species of the type of scrub vegetation that occurs around the Mediterranean Sea and the coast of California.

2.       Includes spearmint (Mentha spicata), peppermint (M. piperita), marjoram, catmint, oregano, rosemary, sage, basil, thyme, savory, and others.

3.       Dried leaves or distilled oils of these herbs find widespread use in flavorings, perfumes, gums, candies, toothpastes, mouthwashes, soaps, teas, etc.

4.       Menthol is the most abundant component of peppermint oil: Mentha arvensis has a high menthol content.

5.       Marjoram and oregano were used by ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians for both cooking and medicine. They are both from the same genus: Origanum marjorana is fairly mild, and Origanum vulgare (oregano) has a bite to it. The modern fondness for oregano (O. vulgare) in the U.S. can be attribute to the rise in popularity of Italian food - particularly pizza - after WWII.

6.       Sweet basil (Ocimim basilicum) is one of the oldest herbs known and is considered a scared Hindu plant from its native India or Africa. In India, basil is considered sacred and has earned a reputation as a mood elevator. The ancient Greeks thought the plant grew best if it was addressed in insulting tones while being tended. Others associated the plant with female purity because the leaves were said to wilt if handled by unchaste women. Perhaps the most interesting use of basil was developed by the wives of Genoese sailors, who ground the leaves into olive oil with garlic, cloves and mixed in Parmesan cheese and pine nuts, producing the classic pesto sauce.

7.       Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) comes from a shrubby plant with needle-like leaves. It has long been used to brew tea. The oil is extracted and sometimes used as a constituent of perfumes and hair conditioners.

8.       Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), a Mediterranean plant, commonly grown in California. Thymol, a crystallized phenol constituent of thyme oil, has some antiseptic and fungicidal properties, and is used in mouth washes and cough drops.


Parsley family (Apiaceae, Umbelliferae) - second in importance to the mint family in terms of the number of herbs it contains. Members of this family are easily recognizable because of their flat-topped clusters of flowers.

1.       Includes parsley, caraway, dill, fennel, celery, anise, coriander, cilantro, cumin, chervil,etc.

2.       Recognized by their flat-topped inflorescence (umbel) and alternate compound leaves

3.       Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) - native to Mediterranean, revered by early Greeks as symbols of both victory and death, and as such was used in crowns for champions and wreathes for tombs.

                                Lvs of parsley high in vitamin. D and A; said to sweeten breath after eating garlic.

4.       Dill (Anethum graveolens) - both lvs and seeds are used as seasoning. Individual plants are not grown for both because when dill weed is desired, the plant is harvested before it flowers.

                                Dill oil is used in the pickling industry.

                                Native to the Mediterranean region and Europe

5.       Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) - cilantro leaves are from the same plant as coriander, which   are the seeds of the plant.

6.       Caraway (Carum carvi) - seeds used in rye bread. Native to Europe, Asia, No. Africa, and India. The word”caraway”, comes from the Arabic “karawya”. Also used in cheeses, soups, sausages.

7.       Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)


Although the part of the plant used in all of these cases is generally called a seed, it is in fact half a fruit composed of both the pericarp and the seed. The oils that give flavor to the fruits are usually located in the vessels in the fruit wall. These oils can be extracted and used as flavorings for medicines and candies.



Mustard family (Brassicaceae)

1.       In addition to the vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, turnips, radishes) it provides 2 condiments - mustard and horseradish.

2.       The same type of sulfur-containing compounds  that give cabbage and turnips their sharp flavors produce the biting tang of these tow herbs.

3.       Temperate family is abundant in the Mediterranean.

4.       Characteristic flowers have 4 petals arranged in a cross, which accounts for the old family name, Cruciferae.

5.       Seeds of Brassica nigra and B. alba are the source of seasonings for mustard. Forerunners of today’s mustard can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when crushed mustard seed was mixed with vinegar to prepare a sauce. the traditional "hot dog" mustard Americans use as a condiment is a mixture of the dried seeds of 2 Brassica species, B. nigra and B. alba, black mustard and white mustard.

a.        the difference in potency of the 2 species is due to the fact that each produces a different oil when mixed with water.

b.       The sharp, tangy taste of of mustard is due to the result of reactions between sinigrin (in blk mustard) or sinalbin (in wh. mustard) and myrosin, an enzyme. In the presence of water, these components react to produce volatile oils that give mustard its characteristic taste. Unless acidified (vinegar) the flavor of prepared mustard quickly deteriorates.

c.        mustard gas used in chemical warfare does not come from mustard plants; it belongs to a group of disagreeable-smelling compounds called thioethers that contain sulfur, an element also found in natural mustard oils.

d.       mustard gas is produced synthetically by a number of prodecures and contains chlorine as well as sulfur.

6.       Whole mustard seeds are used in pickling; ground mustard seeds are used in many recipes.

7.       Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) - used by early Scandinavians and Germans, as a condiment for meats and fish.

a.        the smell and taste of horseradish come from the glycoside sinigrin, which decompooses in the presence of water to form a mustard oil.


Another noteworthy flavoring agent that comes from the Mediterranean area is saffron, Crocus sativa, the most costly of all herbs and spices.

Saffron (Crocus sativus) Iridaceae

1.       The world’s most expensive spice is obtained from the delicate stigmas of an autumn crocus.

2.       Stigmas from 150,000-200,000 flowers yield 1 kilogram of spice (75,000-100,000 flowers yield 1 lb. of spice). In 1991, retail price of saffron in parts of U.S. was $6.70 per gram ($190 per oz.)

3.       Crocus sativus is propagated by corms. Every autumn the appearance of purple flowers signals the beginning of the saffron harvest. Flowers must be picked in full bloom before wilting (window of only a few hours). Once picked, flowers must be carefully stripped of their orange-red 3-parted stigmas; stigmas must be removed before petals wilt. Usually hand-picked. After stigmas are removed, they are dried by slow roasting, and sold as either saffron threads (whole stigmas) or powdered.

4.       High price of saffron has led to the adulteration of it. It is often adulterated with the flowers of safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), petals of marigold, and flowers of Calendula (all belonging to Asteraceae).

5.       The crocus is native to eastern Mediterranean countries, but cultivated in parts of Europe, China, and India.

6.       Known to ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews who used it as a medicine, as a dye (yellow), and as perfume. Nowadays, used mostly as a spice for flavoring cakes, cheeses, butter, and confectionary. Used in expensive curries, and the Spanish paella.

7.       In the East, the yellow dye symbolized the epitome of beauty.

8.       Saffron - from the Arabic zafaran, meaning yellow.



Individual spices of the Asian Tropics


Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) Lauraceae

1.        One of the main spices sought in the early explorations, and documented in ancient Egyptian, Biblical, Greek, Roman, and Chinese accounts.

2.        Native to India and Sri Lanka; grows best in wet, tropical conditions.

3.        Under cultivation, evergreen trees are kept small and bushy (2-3 m in height); in the wild it can reach a ht. of 12 m (39’).

4.        Harvesting -

a.        2-year old stems and twigs are cut and the bark removed with a special curved  knife.

b.        Outer layer of bark is scraped away and the inner bark curls in quills (cinnamon sticks) as it dries. Imperfect quills and trimmings are ground into cinnamon powder.

c.        The quills, or inner stem portions, are essentially the pericycle (tissue sandwiched betw. endodermis - innermost layer of root cortex surrounding stele -  and phloem) and phloem.

d.        Cork is removed.

5.        Used in home cooking, flavoring of candy, baked goods, meat products.

6.        Bark oil, distilled from scraps, used in soft drinks (colas) and chewing gum.

7.        Leaf oil is strong, hot, and clove-like; used in chewing gum, condiments, and pickling.

8.        Seed dispersal by birds.


Other spices that come from tropical tress of the Old World include cloves, nutmeg, and mace.


Cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata or Syzygium aromaticum) Myrtaceae

1.       Cloves are rather unusual in that they come from unopened flower buds. Once opened (the flowers) they are useless as a spice.

2.       Tropical evergreen tree native to the Moluccas (Spice Islands), and nearby areas of Indonesia.

3.       Chinese familiar with cloves by 300 BCE; brought to Egypt 176 AD.  When the Dutch controlled the Spice Islands, they confined production of cloves to a single island in order to drive up prices.

4.       The calyx tube, hypanthium, encloses the inferior ovary. The whole bud resembles a nail, and this likeness is reflected in its common name, clove (from the French word, clou, derived from the Latin, clavus, meaning nail). The Greek Orthodox saw in cloves the nails of the Cross. A traditional Easter cookie in Greece has a whole clove embedded in it, representing the nails that kept Jesus to the crucifix.

5.       Cloves are whole or ground - in desserts, beverages, meats, pickling, and sauces. In Indonesia, cloves are mixed with tobacco for cigars and cigarettes. About half the world's production of cloves is used in the manufacture of Indonesian kretek cigarettes.

6.       Clove oil extracted from floral buds, stem, pedicel, peduncle, and leaves has been used in medicine.

a.        (flavoring pharmaceuticals; applied externally, it is germicidal and mildly analgesic; used as a domestic remedy for toothache; disinfectants, mouthwash, toothpaste, soaps, perfumes.


Nutmeg and Mace (Myristica fragrans) Myristaceae

1.       These are 2 spices obtained from the same plant, the nutemg tree, native to the Spice Islands (Molucca Islands).

2.       Nutmeg trees are dioecious, with pistillate trees bearing apricot-like fruit from which the spices are derived.

3.       Fruit is a drupe with a fleshy mesocarp that is removed, exposing the aril-covered endocarp. (Aril - thick, reticulated, fleshy seed covering, overlaying the endocarp).

a.       the aril is removed from the fruit, dried, and ground to become the aromatic mace. (This is not to be confused with the aerosol chemical used is self-defense).

b.       aril is bright red and reticulated (net-like) in structure.

c.       mace is used as a spice in cakes, sauces (ketchup), pickles, and pastries.

4.       After removing the aril, the pit, consisting of the stony endocarp and seed within, is cured by drying until the seed rattles freely in the shell. The shell is cracked, releasing the nut or nutmeg, which is sold whole or ground.

5.       The ground spice can be stored for years without loss of flavor.

6.       Both nutmeg and mace have gained some notoriety as potential hallucinogens.

a.       anecdotal accounts of hallucinogenic effects of nutmeg date back to the 1570s.

b.       however, if the spice is consumed in large enough quantities to produce the putative hallucinogenic effects, it may become ver toxic with unpleasant side effects including nausea, vomiting, and dizziness.

c.       reasoning that any psychoactive properties of nutmeg were not likely to escape native peoples’ (Spice Island) notice, ethnobotanists traveled to the spice Islands where they found that nutmeg oil was used to treat the flu by rubbing it over the body to create warm, strengthening feeling; that grated nutmeg with eucalyptus oil was strapped to the abdomen to treat diarrhea; that mace, combined with other herbal ingredients, is used in a drink to alleviate insomnia, stress, and anxiety; and that no mention of nutmeg was heard of it being used as a hallucinogen.



Two other spices of great importance in ancient cultures fare cardamom and ginger, both from the ginger family, Zingiberaceae.


Ginger (Zingibar officinale) Zingiberaceae

1.       Monocotyledenous perennial herb.

2.       Native to southern Asia (tropical Asia), but cultivated throughout the tropics and introduced to Europe by Arabs over 2,000 years ago.

3.       China and India are the largest producers and exporters.

4.       The aerial shoots of ginger arise from a fleshy rhizome, which is the useful part of the plant yielding the spice. Rhizomes not only provide the spice, but small portions of the rhizome are used for vegetative reproduction.

5.       White ginger - obtained by washing, boiling, peeling, and blanching

        Black ginger - merely washed and boiled before drying

        Preserved ginger - produced mainly in China - young rhizomes are washed and boiled until tender. They are then boiled several more times with half their wt. in sugar.

6.       Aroma and taste is spicy, hot, and pungent; best ginger is said to come from Jamaica.

7.       Used as flavoring in cakes and drinks (ginger ale, ginger beer).

8.       Turmeric (Curcuma domestica) is an Asian member of the ginger family that produces rhizomes that are dried and ground and then incorporated into curry powder or used as a source of yellow dye.


Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)

1.        Cardamom comes from the dried seeds of the plant.

2.        Oils extracted from the seeds were formerly used for a variety of purposes, including medicines.

3.        Used as a flavoring in Arab and Turkish coffee.


Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) Poaceae

1.        From the same genus as citronella, a perfume oil commonly used to repel mosquitoes and to scent cleaning solutions.

2.        The portion of the lemongrass that is used is the slightly swollen base of the tiller, which is more tender than the leaves.

3.        The flavor is reminiscent of a combination of ginger and lemon.


In terms of quantities traded, black pepper is one of the most important spices in the world today.

Black and white pepper (Piper nigrum) Piperaceae

1.        Most widely used spice today. Once was a precious, desired commodity.

2.        Both black and white peppers are obtained from the dried berries of Piper nigrum, a climbing vine native to India, Sri Lanka, and East Indies, where it thrives in a hot, wet climate.

Flowers occur in catkin-like spikes, 3-25 cm long, arising at nodes opposite leaf.

Fruits are sessile, spherical drupes (or berries).

Apart from Piper spp., there are numerous other spices with the familiar name of pepper. (spice derived from Capsicum - Solanaceae - paprika, corruption of pepper, red pepper, chili pepper, cayenne pepper, bell pepper, etc.)

                Black pepper

a.       Berries are picked green just prior to ripening. Berries are dried for a few days and during this process they turn black and shrivel.

b.       They are sold like this (as peppercorns), or ground.

c.       Since the biting, piquant flavor is due to volatile oils, peppercorns begin to lose their flavor after grinding. Pungency due to the alkaloid, piperine.

                White pepper

a.       Berries are ripened on the vine.

b.       After harvesting, the outer hull is removed, leaving a grayish-white kernel that is  ground. White pepper is almost entirely seed (pericarp is removed).

c.       White pepper is slightly milder, lacking the pungency of black pepper.