7 Spice Plants That Look Very Different From What You Use for Cooking

We use these popular food flavorings all the time. But, prepare to be surprised by what certain spices look like on the plant.

Want to add some zing to a pot of chili or flavor a batch of pumpkin bread? You'll probably reach for your spice collection. But unless you're a plant nerd or a hardcore foodie, you probably wouldn't recognize many of your favorite spices before they're harvested. Unlike herbs, the aromatic leaves of various plants, spices are derived from roots, stems, flowers, bark, or seeds. For example, cayenne is a spice that comes from the fruit of a chili pepper plant.

Some of our most beloved spices, such as vanilla and cinnamon, come from interesting tropical plants. You'd never guess what they look like before they land in those little bottles in your spice cabinet. You can even try growing these spices yourself.

person holding fresh nutmeg fruit cut in half revealing red inside
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1. Nutmeg

Nutmeg and ginger are often baking partners in fall desserts, but they're from very different plants. If you've seen fresh ginger at a grocery store, it's easy to see it's a root. If you've seen whole nutmeg, you probably would guess it's a seed, but there's more to this spice plant.

The nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) produces fuzzy brown fruits, which split when ripe to reveal a large seed with bright red skin. That red covering is used to make mace, another spice. The dark kernel it surrounds is ground to create nutmeg. Nutmeg trees are hardy in Zones 10-11 but are challenging to grow in a home garden.

green wasabi roots in a pile on a wood surface
Courtesy of Amanda Schmidt

2. Wasabi

Where does the pungent green paste we love to put on sushi come from? Wasabi, also called Japanese horseradish (Eutrema japonicum) is a beautiful plant with glossy, heart-shaped leaves and clusters of small, white flowers. But it's what's growing below the soil that creates wasabi. The thick rhizomes (underground stem) are finely grated to make pastes and powders.

Try growing your own wasabi in a moist, shady spot. It'll live for many years as long as you protect it from freezing temperatures, so use a container to make it easy to move it inside when needed.

Buy It: Wasabi Seeds ($4, Etsy)

close up of vanilla orchid flower
Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr

3. Vanilla

Vanilla comes from an orchid family climbing vine (Vanilla planifolia). The flavorful parts are the long pods and tiny seeds within (that's what those black flecks are in natural vanilla ice cream). Each pod needs to be harvested by hand, then put through a long curing process to maximize flavor, contributing to its high price.

These slow-growing spice plants are challenging to grow in your garden but can make interesting houseplants. Vanilla needs consistently high humidity and warm temperatures and a sturdy support structure to climb (it needs to reach a height of 3 to 5 feet before it blooms).

lose up of cinnamon tree bark
Courtesy of Dinesh Valke

4. Cinnamon

When you're eating cinnamon, you're actually eating the bark from various species of cinnamon trees (Cinnamomum spp.). The tree trunks are cut to the ground, and the bark is stripped off to harvest the cinnamon. As it dries, it curls into the cinnamon sticks you've likely seen in grocery stores. The cut trees then sprout new stems from their roots.

As well as producing flavorful bark, cinnamon trees also bear 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.

Close up of purple saffron crocus flower with yellow center and red stamen
Courtesy of Zeynel Cebeci

5. Saffron

Saffron is one of the most expensive spices by weight⁠ because it's made from the tiny stigmas (female reproductive parts) of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). Bypass the hefty price tag by growing this spice plant yourself. As a bonus, fall-blooming crocus will present a beautiful show of purple flowers.

Each bulb produces a single flower, which blooms for only one week per year. Each flower produces three stigmas. It takes at least a couple dozen flowers to get enough saffron to flavor a dish like Spanish-inspired paella. Plant saffron crocus bulbs in well-drained soil and full sun. They are hardy in Zones 6-9, so they will come back year after year in these regions.

close up of black pepper berries
Courtesy of Nick Allen

6. Black Pepper

Although you may think peppercorns are seeds because they are hard and round, they're actually dried berries from a tropical vine called Piper nigrum. The berries grow in small chains that dangle 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 ($25 and up, Sow Exotic)

close up of cardamom flowers
Courtesy of Dinesh Valke

7. Cardamom

Another expensive spice, cardamom, is made from a plant related to ginger. It comes from the small, triangular capsules and seeds (Elettaria cardamomum). This spice plant's leaves are fragrant, and small, white flowers with hot pink accents appear in spring. This rainforest native requires constant warmth and high humidity, so it can be tricky to grow this spice outdoors in most regions of the United States. Cardamom can work as a houseplant. However, it can become quite large over time.

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

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