Nature Bulletin No. 290-A January 20, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
The contents of those little spice cans on every kitchen shelf have
romantic histories. The story of spices is a tale of camel caravans,
perilous voyages through unknown seas, the discovery of America,
bloody wars, and the rise and fall of far-flung empires. The Chinese
traded with Malay for spices, 4000 years ago. In 408 AD, when Rome
was besieged by the Visigoth conqueror, Alaric, the Eternal City bought
her freedom with gold, silver, silk, leather and 3000 pounds of pepper.
In medieval times, the demand for spices to flavor tasteless foods and to
disguise the taste and odor of half-rotten meats made them literally
worth their weight in gold. The poor had only salt and a few herbs. A
pound of pepper cost more than a sheep; a pound of cloves was worth
more than a cow.
untold centuries, spices were obtainable only from the Arabs who
jealously guarded their caravan routes from the fabulous Far East. In
the 11th Century, Venice dominated the Mediterranean and her
merchants became wealthy by ferrying Crusaders to the Holy Land and
returning with cargoes of spices. The quest for a sea passage to India
and the Spice Islands, by Portugal and Spain, eventually led to
discovery of a route around Africa, the discovery of America by
Columbus, and Magellan's voyage rounding Cape Horn.
It is a remarkable fact that most of the true spices grow on tropical
islands or near the sea. Pepper, the most important, is an ivy-like
climbing vine native to Ceylon and the Malabar coast of India. Slender
spikes of minute flowers are followed by green berries which later turn
red like strands of coral beads. When dried, the green berries turn black
and are sold as black pepper. The ripe red berries, freed from skins and
pulp, make white pepper. It is now grown in many parts of Asia and in
the West Indies.
Cinnamon is the thin yellowish-brown inner bark of the twigs of several
kinds of small evergreen trees in the laurel family. It is highly fragrant
and has a peculiarly sweet warm aromatic flavor. It is native to Ceylon
and the Malabar coast but is now grown in Java, Egypt, Brazil and the
West Indies. The Jews anointed their holy vessels with cinnamon-
scented oils and it is used in incense burned in Catholic churches. The
bark, buds and dried unripe fruit of the Cassia, a related tree in China,
are used for a less aromatic flavoring.
Nutmeg and Mace are produced by an evergreen tree native to the
Moluccas or Spice Islands but now grown extensively in Madagascar,
Zanzibar and elsewhere. It may become 40 feet tall and its small yellow
bell-shaped flowers are followed by peach-like fruit which split open to
expose a kernel covered by a scarlet fibrous coat. Inside is the seed --
the nutmeg. The scarlet coat, dried, is mace.
Cloves come from another evergreen tree native to the Spice Islands. Its
rose-pink flower buds, unopened, are picked and dried in the sun. Both
Portugal and the Netherlands rose successively to be world powers
through their monopolies on clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper -- a
monopoly finally broken by the English and the French. Coriander,
turmeric and ginger are ancient spices -- the latter two from
underground root-stocks. Ginger, originally from southern Asia, has
been grown in the volcanic soils of Jamaica since 1600 AD The only
true spice native to the New World is the Allspice Tree, so named
because its unripe berry, dried, seemed to combine the flavors of
pepper, nutmeg and clove.
Solomon's bed was perfumed with cinnamon. Egyptian kings were
embalmed with aromatic oils, and Connecticut Yankees sold wooden
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