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Spicing Up Your Houseplant Collection

By Audrey Stallsmith (AudreyNovember 9, 2012
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The plants from which we get flavorings and spices have to rank among the most exotic, since they are the types for which expeditions were once launched and new worlds explored. Columbus actually stumbled across the Americas by accident, when they got in his way as he was seeking a new spice route to the East Indies! It wasn't until after Cortez invaded Mexico, however, that Europe "discovered" vanilla and chocolate.

Gardening picturevanilla orchid printFortunately, many of the flavoring plants aren't all that difficult to grow, though they can be hard to find.  A generous trader sent me a cutting of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) which proved easy to root.  Since the vine must reach about ten feet in length to flower, however, it may be difficult to convince another gardener to lop his or hers back for you!

Because it prefers partial shade, this orchid has done quite well for me under a fluorescent grow light, though I generally have to loop it  around on itself a bit to make it fit.  In their natural  habitat, vanilla orchids grow on trees.  So the vines require a support to which they can attach their aerial rootlets, whether an actual tree, a broad and sturdy wooden stake, or a moss-covered pole.  They also need a light "soil" in which to grow, either orchid mix, sphagnum moss, or--what I've been using--a blend of orchid mix and potting soil. 

Mine hasn't grown long enough to bloom yet.  If yours has, you will need to hand-pollinate the blooms--and quickly--if you want to harvest any vanilla pods.  The flowers only stay open for one day, sometimes only one morning.  And, even after pollination, the pods will generally take six months to mature.

black pepper printI don't have a black pepper vine yet, though I did try unsuccessfully to start one from seed last winter.  Piper nigrum, like the vanilla orchid, generally climbs trees or stakes in partial sun to light shade. 

On plantations, once a vine reaches about three feet in height, a worker will twine it around the base of the stake or tree, and cover it with soil.  This reportedly encourages the plant to send up many more shoots than it would otherwise.

Because it is prone to root rot, it's safest to keep it a bit root bound in a terra cotta--rather than a plastic--pot, in very well-drained soil.  The peppercorns will look like dangling strands of green beads, and will redden as they ripen.

coca tree printLike the pepper vine, the cocoa tree (theobroma cacao) can bloom and fruit year round when it is happy.  It usually needs to reach at least five feet before it will flower, however.

I started mine from fresh seeds sent to me by a trader who had recently purchased them.  The trees are actually easy to germinate if the seeds are fresh enough, and I ended up with far more trees than I needed, though I eventually traded away all but one.

I've read that these have to be at least five feet tall to bloom, which is probably why mine hasn't made 'beans" yet!  But, since it's only reached a couple feet, it seems happy enough under the fluorescent grow lights in the basement.  On plantations, cocoa trees are usually grown in the shade of other trees, so they don't require intense light.  Though the temperature down there--mid sixties--is probably a bit low for the tree's tastes, the humidity is higher than it would be upstairs.    

Cocoa trees buds are supposed to sprout directly from tissue on the bare bark of the trunk itself or on older branches, in what is known as cauliflorous blooming.  It may take months for them to set green pods, which turn yellow or red when the cocoa beans inside are ripe. 

cinnamon tree printLike the cocoa tree, cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) will germinate best if the seeds are fresh, and is often grown in the light shade of other trees.  I purchased my seeds from a company that only had them available for a short time, because they don't remain viable for long.

I probably should have pinched the tree back sooner, as it tends to grow straight up without branching out.  After I finally got around to pruning, it grew to one side instead.  It's supposed to produce small white flowers and black berries during the summer.  Mine hasn't done so yet, probably because I keep cutting it back in the--perhaps hopeless--endeavor to turn it into a properly balanced specimen!

Keep in mind, though, that the berries aren't edible and not really necessary.  The spice actually comes from the inner bark of the tree, which--when peeled off--curls into cinnamon sticks.  The tree doesn't actually have much scent until it is cut.

Cardamom likes shade and its lance-shaped leaves look similar to those of ornamental gingers.  Mine, received in a trade, filled up its pot rather too quickly.  Although it's supposed to prefer temperatures over seventy, it actually does well in the basement also, since it is too root bound to rot!

In tropical countries, it generally produces blooms like the thumbnail photo in the spring and seed pods in the autumn, though it won't often flower in less steamy climates.  Cardamom is worth growing just for the spicy scent of the leaves however.  Most of the seeds sold in supermarkets were harvested green, so they probably won't sprout.  But it shouldn't be difficult to find somebody like me whose plant sorely needs dividing! 

Most of these flavoring and spice species would probably do fine in a bright and warm window too, though I would add a sheer curtain to diffuse the sunlight--and mist those plants with rainwater frequently during the winter to keep the humidity up.  As I've discovered, growing them isn't difficult, but convincing them to flower can be a bit more challenging!

Note:  Thumbnail image is by Reji Jacob and prints from Kohler's Medicinal-Pflanzen, all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.            

 


  About Audrey Stallsmith  
Audrey StallsmithAudrey is the author of the Thyme Will Tell mystery series from WaterBrook Press (Random House) and an e-book of humorous rural romances titled Love and Other Lunacies. In addition to digging up plots--both garden variety and novel--the former Master Gardener writes free articles on plant history and folklore for her Thyme Will Tell site and posts her photos at GardenPhotographs.net . Audrey also designs hay-seedy stuff and nonsense for her Rustic Ramblings Zazzle store, and indulges in mystery novels, apologetics, cryptic crosswords, old lace, beads, and Border Collies. Follow her on Google.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
House plant trader wanted :) KLR356 1 18 Nov 16, 2012 1:37 PM
Spicing up tropicbreeze 0 12 Nov 9, 2012 2:31 PM
Cardamon CLScott 0 15 Nov 9, 2012 1:21 AM
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