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June 2016

Herbs and Spices: Let's Talk Botany

by Samantha Richardson, Horticulturist

After a long day, I look forward to imagining what delicious meal I will cook up that evening. I pick a protein to start with and the options from there are limitless - I think we can all agree that the best way to enhance a meal is with a flavorful sprinkle of your favorite herb or a pinch of your favorite spice.

The best part is that we can grow some of these favorites right in our own garden. Understanding the nature of these plants will lead us to a successful design and bountiful harvest.

We frequently hear these flavorful seasonings together as one term, “herbs and spices”, which may lead to confusion when determining whether the item you are using is indeed an herb, or a spice. Language in the botanical sense differs from that in the culinary sense, as we are most commonly familiar with in discussion of fruits and vegetables.

In the culinary sense these distinctions are driven by taste, fruit is often considered sweet while vegetables are considered savory. Botanically speaking, many vegetables, and nuts, are understood to be fruit – defined as the seed-bearing structure of a plant.

Similarly, while herb, or herbaceous, in botany refers simply to a plant that grows without a woody stem, the culinary value refers to a seasoning gathered from the leaves and herbaceous stems of a plant. A spice is a seasoning acquired from a part of the plant other than leaves, including bark, root, and seed. Whether an herb or a spice, essential or aromatic oils are responsible for the sought after flavoring.

At Greater Newark Conservancy, we have a dedicated Herb Garden. Note that we do not have a specific Spice Garden, nor do many other gardens in our Northeastern region - and for good reason. Many spices grow in tropical or subtropical climates that could only be created artificially in our region, which may not be economical for the home gardener.

However, there are a small handful of common spices that can be grown here. We have included Coriandrum sativum in our herb garden, a plant whose leaves are the source of the herb cilantro. Letting that same plant flower and produce seed brings a welcome surprise – coriander! This little plant is a workhorse, providing us with both an herb anda spice. The different flavor in each of these seasonings is the result of a different essential oil compound produced in each part of the plant.

Another Apiaceae family member, Anethum graveolens, similarly doubles as an herb and a spice – dill weed and dill seed. Ginger root, Zingiber officinale, can be grown and harvested during our warm months but should be overwintered in a protected location, such as a basement, during the winter.

The first bed we have worked on showcases plants with similar foliage for easy comparison. We chose to highlight parsley, Petroselinum crispum, versus cilantro (coriander) and chives, Allium schoenoprasum, versus garlic chives, A. tuberosum, versus lemongrass, Cymbopogon spp. – last year a high school intern thought they were steeping lemongrass in water, only to realize they actually were using garlic chives! To complete the design, we are growing multiple cultivars of thyme and oregano underneath these focal plants.

If you are planning an herb garden of your own, a great source for finding rare and unusual plants is Well-Sweep Herb Farm in Port Murray, NJ.

Greater Newark Conservancy: www.citybloom.org
** All photos by Samantha Richardson

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