News - Plant variety is the spice of life

Plant variety is the spice of life

Spice up your life, and your cooking, with a spice garden. Unlike their herbal cousins, spices aren’t confined to containers or a single fragrant patch. Instead, they pop up throughout the yard as exotic little surprises in forms as various as bushes, vines and trees. The down side (there always has to be one) is that some spice plants will only thrive (and produce) in the warm humid climates from whence they originated.  

A colourful history 

Spices and herbs have played a dramatic role in the development of Western civilisation. Spices today are plentiful and are used mostly as flavorings. However, in ancient and medieval times, they were rare and precious products, used for medicine, perfume, incense, and flavoring The spice trade began in the Middle East more than 4000 years ago. Arabic spice merchants would create a sense of mystery by withholding the origins of their wares, and would ensure high prices by telling fantastic tales about fighting off fierce winged creatures to reach spices growing high on cliff walls. Originally, spice traders travelling in by camel caravans made their way along the Silk Road”. This route connected Asia with the Mediterranean world, including North Africa and Europe. Trade on The Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the great civilisations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia, and Rome.  

Spice up your life 

Spices are dried seeds, fruits, roots, barks or vegetables used mainly for flavouring, colouring or preserving food. You can bring the taste and smell of the Far East to the garden as simply as popping a chili plant into a pot on the verandah or, if you’re prepared to put in a lot of effort, grow spice plants around the garden. Chilies are easy to grow in pots or garden beds and look pretty, while also producing fruit that can be used fresh or dried. Ginger is best known as a knotty rhizome (basically a bunch of roots), but the young green shoots can also be peeled and used in cooking. It needs a lot of water and nutrients (so prepare the soil with plenty of compost) then harvest after the plant dies down in winter. Dig around the plant and cut off a piece of the older root, leaving the young root with shoots to re-sprout. Tumeric is closely related to ginger, but has shorter stems, broader leaves and small orange roots. Galangal has red roots and can be grown in pots, but needs to be protected from frost. Cardamom is moderately frost-tolerant but only sets pods in warm climates. Vanilla is a vine that only flowers in moist tropical conditions, may need to be hand-pollinated and requires a lot of work to dry and cure. But in the right conditions it can look charming when allowed to climb through a tree. (It can reach 10 metres in height.) Cinnamon, on the other hand, can be grown in pots and, while it thrives in warm tropical climates, is worth a try in other parts of Australia if it’s kept in a pot in a warm place. Mustard seeds come from various plants and, while short lived, are easy to grow.  

5 fun facts about spices 

  1. The spice trade developed throughout South Asia and the Middle East in about 2000 BC with cinnamon and pepper, and in East Asia with herbs and pepper.
  2. Archaeological excavations have uncovered clove burnt onto the floor of a kitchen, dated to 1700 BC, at the Mesopotamian site of Terqa, in modern-day Syria.
  3. In the story of Genesis, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers to spice merchants.
  4. Spices were among the most sought-after and expensive products available in Europe in the Middle Ages, the most common being pepper cinnamon (and the cheaper alternative cassia), cumin, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.
  5. Spices that have now fallen into obscurity in European cuisine include grains of paradise (a relative of cardamom that mostly replaced pepper in late medieval northern French cooking), long pepper, mace, spikenard, galangal and cubeb.
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