12/09/2013 04:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Spice It Up! The Stories and the Places Behind the Spices

Mulled wine, also known as glögg, glühwein or vin chaud. Wikimedia Commons.

This holiday season, while you're sipping mulled wine and nibbling gingerbread, impress your company with some spicy knowledge. I'm talking about spices, those dried, powdery substances (roots, bark and seeds) that were once worth more than gold. It's easy to cruise to your local grocery store to pick up a bottle of ground cinnamon, but growing a spice is not like growing thyme in your backyard. Even locavores make exceptions for their spices, because some things grow only where they grow. Most of the plants and trees on this list need a steamy climate to propagate. Let's take a tour.


Zanzibar cinnamon tree and beach. By James Castleden on Kemi Tours & Travel.

Cinnamon rolls, snickerdoodles, cider and pumpkin pie -- cinnamon is a holiday spice superstar. The spice is derived from the bark of a tree. But get this: There are twelve species of tree! Only a few of which are grown commercially for the grocery store shelves. The cinnamon tree is native to Sri Lanka, a lush, tropical island off the coast of India. It is grown in nearby regions, but is also cultivated in East Africa. Zanzibar is a historic trading post that offers a melting pot of culture and colorful spice markets, to boot.


Ginger field and coast of Kauai. Wikimedia Commons.

Pickled ginger with sushi, ginger cookies, and ginger ale -- ginger is a popular spice year round. The plant is hearty. One can grow it most anymore (and it has a nice flower, which has made it popular in landscaping), but today's top producers are in Jamaica, India, Indonesia and Australia. Hawaii hosts some ginger farms, which are open to the public.


Saffron flower and Kashmir landscape. Wikimedia Commons.

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. But look at the labor required, and it's no wonder. Each flower yields just two delicate red threads (technically, a stigma). All of this to make saffron rice, saffron margaritas and saffron-dyed textiles. And what color! In ancient days, it was the aphrodisiac of pharaohs and kings. But watch out. If taken in large amounts, saffron is a deadly narcotic. Native to the Middle East, it is commercially grown all over the world today. Each year, Kashmir holds a festival at the end of October, celebrating the saffron harvest.


Cardamom flower and Kerala, India. Wikimedia Commons.

Probably one of the lesser known spices on the list, cardamom is a little green pod, used mostly in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. The Scandinavians love it too, especially in dessert breads. And some put it in their coffee and tea! Cardamom seeds grow at the base of the cardamom plant, on small branches emerging from the root of the bush. From afar, the plant looks a lot like ginger, because it's a member of the same family. If you have a hankering to visit a cardamom farm, hop on a plane headed for Guatemala or India. There's even a resort called the Cardamom Club.


Nutmeg seeds and Banda Island volcano. Wikimedia Commons.

The nutmeg tree is native to the Banda Islands in Indonesia. Nutmeg is the seed of this evergreen tree. It is sold as a dried pod, which is used around the world in savory and sweet dishes, and even tasty drinks - eggnog, cider or wine anyone? In India, ground nutmeg is even smoked. Little known fact: the nutmeg tree produces two spices, not one. The other is mace. One small island country in the Caribbean is so proud of its nutmeg production, it calls itself the "Island of Spice" and placed the tree on its red, yellow and green flag. That country is Grenada.


Unopened clove flowers and the Maluku Islands. Wikimedia Commons.

Gingerbread, pumpkin pie and split pea soup -- the glory of cloves! After the sweets, take a cup of clove tea for a toothache. And before gum, some chewed them to freshen the breath. Cloves as we know them, are the unopened flower buds of the clove tree. Dried. They come from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, but are produced commercially the world over: India, Zanzibar, and Madagascar, to name a few.


Allspice and ancient Mayan pyramids in Guatemala. By Piers Cañadas, Creative Commons.

No, this is not a bunch of spices combined. Allspice are the unripe berries of a tree. The English, (of course), gave it its name in the early 1600s. That's because they thought it tasted like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves combined. The berries are picked when they are green and then dried in the sun. Allspice is the all-star spice of the Caribbean. Jerk chicken wouldn't be the same without it. In America, allspice is the important ingredient in Cincinnati-style chili. The tree is native to Central America and parts of Mexico, but like so much agriculture today, it is grown in many warm areas of the world.


Star anise and the Li River, China. By Trip China.

The "crowning" spice of this post is star anise. In America, it seems like this is generally used as a garnish, especially in cider-like drinks. And rightly so, because it is a beautiful fruit, on the tree or dried. As a spice, the fruit is harvested before ripening and then dried. In cuisine, it is mostly used where it originally came from: China and India. But it is also a major component of pho, the classic Vietnamese soup.