Almost every homestead I know of has found a way to incorporate herbs into their garden. But did you know that it is possible to grow spices as well? I know you might be asking, “Aren’t they the same thing?” Although we tend to use the words interchangeably, herbs and spices are different. Herbs are the leaves and young stems of tender, herbaceous plants. Spices, with only a few exceptions, are the dried fruit, kernel, seed, root, rhizome, or bark of certain plants. Spices are generally grown in tropical conditions, but there are spices you can grow on your homestead.
Herbs, both fresh and dried, do really well at the market. But it was very surprising to find out how much better spices do. Spices, sold alone or blended together, sell out every time. Not only that, they help move the herbs as well!
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a beautiful bush that can provide you with not one, but two, spices. The entire plant is aromatic and you can make use of the fresh leaves and twigs for tea, in addition to the berries that will be used for spices.
The spicebush is a native American woodland shrub that does well in partial shade in zones 4-9. It grows to 10 feet tall. These plants are dioecious, meaning you will need both female and male plants for fruit production. The female plants produce fragrant, yellow flowers in early spring. Autumn is when you will see the small, bright red, oval berries.
Harvest the berries in fall and immediately separate the seeds from the skin and pulp. Once separated, either freeze or dry them. Because the berries have a high fatty oil content, you must store them in the freezer, even if you dried them.
The pulp and skin mixture is used when you want a sweet, allspice-like flavor. The berries have a peppery bite that makes a delicious addition to rubs and marinades. When you are ready to use, pull out of the freezer and pulse in an electric coffee grinder.
The next spice you can easily grow in zones 3-9 is sumac. A lot of people mistakenly believe that all sumac is poisonous. In fact, poison sumac is relatively rare and the leaves and stems are different. Poison sumac is related to poison ivy, not sumac. The leaves of poison sumac are not saw-toothed and the stems of poison sumac are red.
True sumac not only offers a deliciously sour, lemony flavor, but is also pest and disease free, fast-growing and drought tolerant. In addition to that, sumac can be planted to stabilize problem embankments.
Sumac can be difficult to find in nurseries, but sumac propagates easily from seeds and seeds are easy to come by in zones 3-9. Look for North American sumac on roadside embankments in the fall, when the berry clusters are dark brown and easy to spot. Once you locate your sumac source, harvest the dark brown, dry berries.
To prepare your berries for propagation, boil a pot of water and remove from the heat. Toss the sumac berries into the pan of water and let them soak for 24 hours.
Drain the berries from the water and let them drain on a paper towel. Place in the refrigerator for 30 days.
After 30 days in the refrigerator, plant in full sun or partial shade in well-draining soil. Plant at a depth of 3/4”, 8′ apart. Water the seeds well.
Water your sumac patch regularly for the first two seasons. You can begin limiting your watering to hot, dry periods during the third season. Within several seasons, you will see a thick colony of sumac plants around the base of each parent plant.
Every three years, cut your sumac to the ground in winter to prevent it from becoming too leggy and taking over your landscape.
To harvest sumac berries to use as a spice, harvest berries when they are red. Clip the clusters just below the end of the cone and let the clusters dry for a few days. It is important that they dry as much as possible before processing to prevent mold.
Once your berry clusters are dry, rub the hairy red clusters between your hands, allowing individual berries to fall onto a tray. Leave the individual seeds on the tray in a thin layer for 24 hours.
Fill your spice grinder half full with sumac seeds. Pulse a few times until the hairs have separated from the seeds. The grinder will not grind the actual seed.
Pour the ground sumac into a sieve and shake over a bowl until you have separated the hairs from the seed. Discard the seeds and repeat until you have processed all of your sumac.
Leave your processed sumac on a tray in a dry spot for 24 hours. Store your sumac in an airtight jar in your pantry.
Sumac is perfect for sprinkling over grilled vegetables, in vinaigrettes, or to season poultry. It makes a wonderful lemonade. It also makes a great seasoning, za’atar, for grilled pita or crusty bread.
- 1 T. toasted sesame seeds
- ¼ c. sumac
- 2 T. dried thyme
- 2 T. dried marjoram
- 2 T. dried oregano
- 1 t. kosher salt
Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container. To use, warm a half cup extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in two tablespoons of za’atar seasoning blend. Brush on grilled pitas or pour in a small bowl and use as a dip for crusty bread.
The next spice you can grow is called Grains of Paradise, also known as Alligator Pepper. It is a warm-weather perennial that is native to Africa. This plant thrives in zones 9-11, but if you live higher up, you can start this plant indoors and grow it as an annual.
Grains of paradise is easily grown from seed. Sow your seeds in mid to late spring. If you are growing this plant outdoors, choose a sunny location that is not crowded with other shrubs or trees. Ideally, it will have a south or southeastern exposure. If you are starting your seeds indoors, use a fertile, well-draining soil mix and plant at a depth of 1/2”. Keep your potted plants in a sunny window where they can receive direct sunlight for at least a few hours each day. The plant will take about 12 days to start growing from seed, will be ready for its first harvest in 10 months and will produce for approximately 10 years.
These plants love humidity. Inside starts may require more humidity than you are comfortable with. To give them what they need, water well and cover with a plastic bag. Water again when condensation is no longer visible on the inside of the bag. Remove the plastic bag once the seedlings are 2-3” tall.
Seeds grow inside pods. The pods are ready to harvest when they turn from green to red. Collect the red pods and dry in the sun for one week. Once the pods are dried, remove the seeds. Each pod will have between 1200-2000 reddish-brown seeds inside. Once the seeds are ground, the powder is pale grey.
Grains of Paradise has a light pepper flavor with hints of cardamom, coriander, and butter. The New York Times calls it “What Peppercorns Only Dream of Being.” You can grind them and use it as a powdered ingredient, but it is really best to keep a pepper grinder full of it on your dinner table.
The last interesting spice to consider growing on the homestead is the Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus). Not only does this tree produce a spice, it will attract butterflies and bees to your yard. It is also an excellent honey plant. This tree needs full sun and very well-drained soil. When planting this tree, do not amend the soil with any organic matter. Once the tree is established, you will not need to water except possibly in extreme drought conditions. Use inorganic mulch, such as pebbles or stones, and a general-purpose fertilizer every other year.
We have records of the chaste tree being used for at least 2000 years. The Greek physician Dioscorides prescribed it to the wives of soldiers who needed help remaining chaste. More recently, herbalist use the fruit to support women’s physical and emotional health during the menstrual cycle and during the transition into menopause. To use the berries for medicinal purposes, make a tincture, or a tea infusion.
For culinary use, simply crack and sprinkle on food as a pepper substitute.
The chaste tree will bloom beautiful lilac flowers from late spring to early fall. Once the blooms drop, you will be left with the berries, which have a lovely pepper flavor. The tree will grow from 15-20 ‘ tall and spread 10-15’.
All of these trees provide interesting landscape additions to your homestead, as well as unusual spices that can enhance your personal culinary creations as well as make profitable additions to your farmers market booth.