Just like herbs, spices come from plants⁠—but it's a little less obvious which part of the plant they come from. What these spices look like on the plant will surprise you.

By Jenny Krane
July 22, 2019
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It shouldn't come as a shock that we're plant nerds. So when we spied this Reddit thread revealing what bananas, pineapples, and cashews look like while they're growing, we started Googling even more foods pre-harvest. Some of the most interesting finds? Spices.

Unlike herbs, which are pretty self-explanatory, spices are derived from parts of the plant other than the leaves, like the root, stem, flower, bark, or seeds. For example, cayenne comes from the fruit of a chili pepper plant. Many of our most beloved spices like vanilla and cinnamon come from interesting exotic plants—and we'd never guess this is what they looked like before they land in our spice cabinet.

Image courtesy of Anna Frodesiak.

Sesame

Those tiny white or black sesame seeds on your bagel are harvested from small, green pods that develop after tubular white or pink flowers bloom in summer on a 2-foot-tall, annual plant (Sesamum indicum). Adventurous gardeners in hot, dry climates will have the most success growing these extremely drought-tolerant plants. After the seed pods turn brown and start to open, harvest them and let them dry to access the seeds inside.

Buy it: Tan Sesame Seeds, $7.99, Amazon

Image courtesy of Amanda Schmidt.

Wasabi

Where does the pungent green paste we love to put on sushi come from? Wasabi or Japanese horseradish (Eutrema japonicum) is a beautiful plant with glossy, heart-shaped leaves and clusters of small, white flowers. But it's actually what’s growing below the soil line that creates wasabi. The rhizome (underground stem) is finely grated to make pastes and powders.  Try growing your own wasabi in a moist, shady spot. It will live for many years as long as you protect it from freezing temperatures or heat above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, so use a container to make it easy to move it inside when needed.

Image courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr.

Vanilla

Vanilla comes from a climbing vine (Vanilla planifolia) in the orchid family. The flavorful parts are the long pods and tiny seeds within (they are the black flecks you might see in vanilla ice cream). Each pod needs to be harvested by hand and then it will undergo a lengthy curing process to maximize flavor, all of which contributes to its high price. These slow-growing plants are challenging to grow in your garden, but can make interesting houseplants if you can give it constantly high humidity and warm temperatures, as well as a sturdy support structure to climb—it needs to reach a height of 3 to 5 feet before it will bloom.

Buy it: GreenBox Vanilla Orchid, $12.99, Amazon

Image courtesy of Dinesh Valke.

Cinnamon

When you’re eating cinnamon, you’re actually eating the bark from various species of cinnamon trees (Cinnamomum spp.). To harvest it, the trunks of the trees are cut to the ground and the bark is stripped off. As it dries, it curls into the cinnamon sticks we are used to seeing. And don't worry, the trees then sprout new stems from their roots. As well as producing flavorful bark, the trees also bears flowers in the spring and summer, followed by black berries that attract birds. These fast-growing, semi-tropical trees are hardy in Zones 9-11 but can be grown indoors in more temperate climates.

Image courtesy of Zeynel Cebeci.

Saffron

Saffron is one of the most expensive spices by weight⁠ because it is made from the tiny stigmas (female reproductive parts) of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). Not only can you cut down on your costs by growing it yourself, this fall-blooming crocus will put on a beautiful show of purple flowers for you. Each bulb produces a single flower, which blooms for only one week per year, and each flower produces three stigmas, so you'll need at least a couple dozen flowers to get enough saffron to flavor a dish like Spanish-inspired paella. Plant the crocus bulbs, like these at $8.89, Amazon, in well-drained soil and full sun. They are hardy in Zones 6-9, so will come back year after year in these regions.

Image courtesy of Nick Allen.

Black Pepper

Although you may think peppercorns are seeds because they are hard and round, they’re actually dried berries from Piper nigrum. Black pepper is a tropical vine that produces chains of small berries that hang from the stems of the plant. By harvesting the berries at different times of development, you can get all four colors of peppercorns (white, green, red, and black) from a single plant. Black pepper is hardy in Zone 10 but can be grown as a houseplant in a container with a trellis so it has some support.

Buy it: Black Pepper Plant, $9.99, Walmart 

Image courtesy of Dinesh Valke.

Cardamom

Cardamom is another pricey spice. It is made from the triangular capsules and seeds of a perennial plant (Elettaria cardamomum) that is related to ginger. This plant has compound leaves and small but eye-catching white flowers with hot pink veining in spring. Though hardy in Zones 10-12, cardamom is particular about growing conditions, so it is best to try it as a houseplant grown from seed.

Image courtesy of Lee Coursey.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg and ginger are often baking partners in fall desserts, but the plants they come from couldn’t be more different. Ginger comes from a root, while nutmeg is the pit of the fruit from Muristica fragrans trees. Fuzzy brown fruits split when ripe to reveal a large seed with a bright red exterior. The red skin is used to make mace, while the dark kernel it surrounds is ground to create nutmeg. Nutmeg trees are hardy in Zones 10-11, but are challenging to grown in a home garden.

Because we usually buy spices already processed and packaged, it's easy to overlook the amazing plants that give us these delicious pods, seeds, bark, roots, and flower parts. Many of them are quite attractive, and if you're feeling adventurous, you can even try growing some of them yourself.

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