The Ecology of Humans – Spices


A spice is some portion of a plant primarily employed for flavoring, coloring, or preserving food. A spice is often pungent or aromatic.

Several spices were among the earliest cultivated plants. This illustrates how people in prehistory understood nutritional value – something that has been largely lost by most people in modern civilization.

The 4 most expensive spices by weight are: saffron, vanilla, cardamom, and Ceylon cinnamon (not the more common Chinese cinnamon (cassia) that is so familiar).

Though it is likely spices have been used in cooking for well over 250,000 years, the earliest certain evidence of their service comes from a pot of stew made in Demark 6,100 years ago, where the cook put in some garlic mustard seed and failed to clean the pot enough to thwart later anthropologists. Various sites around the world show salt being extracted around that time, ostensibly for use with food.

The spice trade sewed different peoples together throughout the Mediterranean and nearby lands. Spices were a high-value commodity along the Silk Road, where East met West over 2,000 years ago.

The ancient Egyptians were well acquainted with a variety of spices: salt, cumin, anise, marjoram, cassia, and other exotic substances, some from trade with India. The preservative power of salt was used in making mummies.

The French never forgot the lesson. To enforce the law against suicide, a 1670 revision to the criminal code decreed that the bodies of suicides be salted, brought before a judge for conviction, and put on public display. Notorious criminals that expired in the miserable French prisons of the day would be salted and brought to trial.


Salt – the sovereign of spices – has more history than any other spice. Every society has salt in its cultural veins. All the great centers of civilization in the Americas were founded in places with access to salt.

Salt long had political strategic importance. It factored in alliances and conquests. Once the high seas became navigable in the 15th century, salt had no substitute to preserve food for long-distance voyages.

Many a city got its start with salt. Buffalo carved a wide road to a salt lick near Lake Erie. The town that started there: Buffalo, New York.

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The odium of sodium is its health effects when over-consumed. The appealing taste of salt means that it is featured in almost all processed foods.

The cardiovascular system suffers from too much salt in the diet. High salt intake is also associated with strokes.

For all that, how the body handles salt has been misunderstood for a long time. Contrary to conventional wisdom, eating salt does not dehydrate you.

Salt-detecting neurons in the mouth stimulate an urge to drink, but that has nothing to do with the body’s actual need for water. Salt stimulates glucocorticoid hormones which break down body fat and muscle tissue, freeing up water for the body to use.

This is how camels can travel through the desert without drinking. A camel supplies itself with water by breaking down the fat in its hump.

Eating more salt to lose weight is bad idea. Salt makes you hungry.

We really do not understand the effect of sodium chloride on the body. ~ American physician Melanie Hoenig


As dear as pepper. ~ medieval French proverb

Called the “king of spices,” pepper is a flowering vine cultivated for its fruit in its native India, where it has served as a spice since prehistoric times.

The familiar pepper spice comes in green, white, and black varieties, depending upon the ripeness of the seed that is ground to make the spice, and whether the outer skin is rubbed off (white).

The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans knew of pepper. The mummy of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II (1303 – 1213 bce) had its nostrils stuffed with black peppercorns.

Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder (23 – 79) wondered why anyone would want to eat something that tasted so bad and was neither salty nor sweet. Besides, Pliny complained, black pepper was being counterfeited.

Juniper berries laid amid black pepper shrink to its size and acquire its taste. This is the oldest known example of the spice-swindling racket that continues to this day.

Pepper became so valuable during Roman times that it was used as a form of currency. The taste for pepper was passed on to those who sought Rome’s fall. Prior to sacking Rome in 410, Alaric the Visigoth demanded a ransom of a ton of pepper to leave off. Attila the Hun later tried the same trick a few decades later, though he was unable to seize either pepper or Rome.

By the end of the Dark Ages the Arabs had secured a monopoly of the wholesale spice trade. Italian city-states Venice and Genoa rose in part from profits from the spice trade.

By the 15th century, a fistful of peppercorns was worth a small fortune. To prevent peppercorn theft, 16th-century dockworkers in the spice trade had to wear clothing without pockets or cuffs.

Columbus sought a western route to the East Indies (India) from Europe via the Atlantic Ocean. In what came to be called the West Indies by confounded Europeans, Columbus discovered chilies that had a fiery, pungent flavor like black pepper. He brought them back to Europe, calling them peppers. The confusion between chilies and pepper remains to this day, 6 centuries later.

Beginning with Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, who sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to reach India in 1498, Portugal came to dominate the black pepper trade. This continued into the 18th century.

The pepper plant made its way to the New World in the 19th century. This lessened pepper’s price but not its value. Pepper today represents 25% of the world spice trade.

Black pepper aids digestion, partly by stimulating more hydrochloric acid. Pepper has antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Ants refuse to walk over a line of pepper.

Chili Pepper

Columbus’ confusion about chili peppers was of a spice that had been part of native Central American diets since at least 7500 bce. Chili peppers were introduced to Asia by Portuguese traders. They became integral to Indian cuisine. Paprika, chili powder, and cayenne pepper are chili pepper products.

Capsaicin gives chili peppers their kick. Chili pepper plants designed capsaicin as a defense against mammalian herbivores and pesky fungi. Avian friends were off the hook. Birds are unaffected by capsaicin, and so happily eat chili fruit. Chili pepper plants count on birds to disperse their seeds, which pass through avian digestive tracts unharmed. In contrast, mammal molars mangle chili seeds.


The food and spice called ginger is the rhizome of a perennial herb. The well-known garden ginger is Zingiber officinale. Other notable members in this botanical family include turmeric, cardamom, and galangal, which is a more potent rhizome than garden ginger.

Ginger is indigenous to southern China, from whence it spread to the tropical areas of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Ginger reached Europe via India by the 1st century.

Ginger is a key ingredient in Indian cuisine. Ginger figures prominently in Ayurvedic medicine: to whet the appetite, aid digestion, improve assimilation and transportation of nutrients, and detoxify and flush cellular wastes.

Ginger is used in other traditional folk medicines around the world: to reduce fatigue, nausea, motion, and morning sickness, and settle the stomach. Japanese folk medicine figures ginger good for blood circulation and inflammation.

Ginger has an analgesic effect on the joints, and so is especially helpful during the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis.

Curry Powder

Curry is a food dish that typically has curry powder in it. Curry powder is a spice blend which may have 20 different ingredients. Essential spices in curry powder are turmeric, cumin, coriander, and a pepper, typically black, though cayenne is also common. Other spices often found in curry powder include cloves, cardamom, ginger, fenugreek, fennel, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Anise, caraway, garlic, mace, poppy, saffron, laurel, brown mustard, and sesame may also be included, among other spices.


The turmeric plant is a perennial herb native to southeast India. Like ginger, the rhizome portion of the plant is boiled, dried, and ground into its spice form.

Curcumin is the active compound in turmeric, giving the spice its golden color. Curcumin inhibits inflammation and improves memory and attention ability.

Curcumin is a diarylheptanoid: a relatively small class of plant secondary metabolites with 2 aromatic rings (aryl groups) joined by a chain of 7 carbons (heptane). Diarylheptanoids have potent antioxidant properties.

As a traditional folk medicine, turmeric has been used for stomach and liver ailments, for fever, and as an antiseptic for open wounds. Turmeric has antimicrobial properties.


The parsley family (Apiaceae) is a large one: 3,700 species across 434 genera. It includes carrots, celery, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, hemlock, and parsley, among many others. What pulls the parsley family together is its pentamerous flowers: 5 petals, sepals, and stamens. Geitonogamy – pollination of one flower by pollen of a different flower on the same plant – is common.

The plant called garden parsley, or more simply parsley, originated in southern Europe. Though now a garnish, herb, and spice, parsley was for a long time solely medicinal.

The ancient Greeks associated parsley with death. Victors at funeral games – athletic contests honoring the dead – were crowned with parsley leaves.

The ancient Romans wore parsley wreaths at weddings to protect against evil spirits. They also wore parsley garlands to ward off intoxication while feasting.

Christian folklore put parsley as a plant of the Devil, as its seeds had low germination rates. The ungerminated seeds were the Devil’s reaping.

In less-than merry old England, parsley was also associated with death. The 1805 Gardener’s Dictionary by Phillip Miller put parsley as fatal to small birds. According to Miller’s book, consuming parsley could injure sight and provoke an epileptic seizure, or even cause epilepsy. This followed on ancient Roman rumor to keep parsley away from nursing mothers, from fear that it could cause epilepsy in their babies. Somewhat surprisingly, considering its supposed death dealing, parsley was used as an antidote against poisons.

Besides being rich in myth, parsley has vitamins A, B, C, and K, and numerous phytonutrients, including antioxidants.


Cumin is the dried seed of the annual herb Cuminum cyminum, in the parsley family. It is globally popular as a flavoring in many cuisines, particularly south Asian, north African, and Latin American.

Cumin has been a spice since ancient times, known to Indians and Egyptians before the 2nd century bce. It was originally cultivated in the Fertile Crescent.

Cumin has been used in traditional medicines for enhancing appetite, digestion, vision, strength, and lactation. Cumin helps regulate blood sugar level. Cumin has antioxidant, antiparasitic, and antimicrobial properties.


The caraway plant is a biennial herb in the parsley family, indigenous to western Asia, Europe, and North Africa. Caraway makes a good companion plant, as its scent hides nearby plants from insect pests, and attracts benefactors in the form of predatory wasps and flies.

Caraway has been a spice since the Stone Age. Erroneously called caraway seeds, the spice is made of the fruit: crescent-shaped achenes 2 mm long.

Caraway is highly nutritious; an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients.


Coriander (aka cilantro) is an annual herb, indigenous to areas spanning southern Europe and north Africa to southwestern Asia.

The plant has been cultivated in Greece at least since the 2nd century bce. The Romans popularized coriander, spreading it throughout its empire.

Coriander was one of the first spices cultivated by settlers of the British colonies in America: brought to North America in 1670.

All parts of the plant are edible, but the fresh leaves (cilantro, Chinese parsley) and crushed seeds for a spice are most commonly eaten.

Coriander roots have a more intense flavor than the leaves. They feature in Thai dishes, including soups and curry pastes.

Coriander and cumin are used to spice Indian masala and in curries. Outside Asia, coriander seeds are widely used in pickling vegetables. Coriander appears in beer, sausage (Germany and South Africa), and rye bread (central Europe and Russia).

Coriander, like many spices, is an antioxidant. It also detoxifies, has antimicrobial effects, and is beneficial to the cardiovascular system.


Cinnamon is a spice made from the inner bark of several trees in the genus Cinnamomum. True cinnamon comes from the Cinnamomum verum tree, native to Sri Lanka. Less expensive cinnamon – called cassia – is obtained from other Cinnamomum trees.

Cinnamon has been known and used throughout history. The Portuguese built a fort for cinnamon on Sri Lanka in the early 16th century and protected their European monopoly over true cinnamon for over a century.

Cinnamon has its place in many cultures’ traditional medicines. The Chinese traditionally prescribe cinnamon to clear blocked energy in the abdomen.

Cinnamon’s use in mouthwashes owes to its germicidal effects. Cinnamon tea relieves stomach gas. Larger amounts have a laxative effect. Cinnamon has been found to slow the progress of Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disease.


As a name, cardamom creates confusion in referring to several related plants in the ginger family. Genuine cardamom – known as Malbar or Ceylon cardamom – grows wild in forests at altitudes of 800–1,500 meters, on the Malbar coast of India, and on the island of Sri Lanka. This spice is called true or green cardamom, as contrasted to black, brown, red, or white cardamom, from plants in the Amomum genus.

Cardamom has a prominent place in Indian cuisine and is an often-used ingredient in Nordic baking. Green cardamom is employed in south Asia to treat teeth and gum infections, throat troubles, lung congestion, and digestive disorders, including breaking up kidney and gall stones. Amomum is used in several Asian traditional medicine systems as a tonic, antiseptic, expectorant, and a digestive aid.

Cardamom is high in iron and manganese, and a good source of potassium, calcium, and magnesium.


Anise (aka aniseed) is an annual angiosperm native to the Levant. Its flavor is similar to other spices, including fennel and licorice. Anise seeds are used to flavor black jellybeans and other confections in different cultural cuisines.

Anise was known to the ancient Romans as a digestive aid. It is recommended as an herbal remedy for its carminative effect: an anti-flatulent, by preventing formation of gastrointestinal tract gas.

Anise, fennel, and star anise contain anethole: a phytoestrogen that helps give these spices their distinctive flavor. Anise has been used to treat menstrual cramps.

As a liquid scent, anise is put on lures to attract fish.

Star Anise

Star anise is a spice with a flavor that closely resembles anise, but it comes from an evergreen tree (Illicium verum) native to northeast Vietnam and southwest China. The tree produces star-shaped fruits that are harvested just before ripening.

Star anise tea is a traditional remedy for rheumatism. The seeds can be chewed after meals to aid digestion.

In contrast to the mainland tree, Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum), a similar evergreen, is inedible and highly toxic. In Japan, it has instead been burned as incense, which provides a pleasant but insensible scent.


Fennel is a hardy, perennial herb indigenous to the Mediterranean shores. Its bulbous base is eaten as a vegetable.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus used the stalk of a fennel plant to steal fire for humans from Olympus, the mountain home of the gods. Numerous cultural myths exist for gracing humankind with fire by theft. Only the Greek version involves fennel.

Fennel seeds make a flavorful aromatic spice. Fennel seeds, along with anise, are used for making absinthe.


After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world. ~ Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde

Absinthe is a highly alcoholic spirit (45–75% alcohol); often greenish, from its inclusion of the juice of the flowers and leaves of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium).

Absinthe is flavored with anise and fennel. It is typically diluted prior to drinking.

Originating in Switzerland in the late 18th century, absinthe became celebrated in literature as la fée verte (the green fairy). (Pictured: a painting of a woman in a bar drinking absinthe, by French impressionist Edgar Degas.)

Absinthe earned exaggerated vilification as a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug. By 1915, absinthe had been banned in the US and much of Europe. The psychedelic compound thujone was the supposed source of absinthe’s mind-altering power, but thujone is in the spirit only in trace amounts.

Absinthe is no more dangerous than ordinary booze. It revived as a celebrated spirit in the 1990s.


Fennel is a traditional medicine for failing eyesight. Fennel syrup is a folk remedy for chronic coughing.

Fleas dislike fennel. It is used in powdered form in kennels and stables to drive off fleas.


As bitter as wormwood. ~ ancient proverb

Wormwood was known to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

The leaves and flowers are used as a spice, or to make wormwood oil. The oil contains thujone, which is also found in oregano and sage.

The name wormwood derives from its use in getting rid of parasitic worms in the digestive tract.

Wormwood has long been used to treat maladies of the digestive system; as a tonic; to increase sexual desire; to treat fever, liver disease, and worm infections; and to stimulate sweating.

Wormwood exemplifies the innate sense that bitter substances are toxic, and only useful in small doses.


The spice licorice comes from the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra, a perennial herb native to southern Europe and parts of Asia. Licorice is popular in candy, with its taste reinforced by aniseed oil, and is used as a flavoring agent for tobacco.

Licorice helps fight cavities. In Spain and southern Italy, the fresh root is chewed as a mouth freshener.

Licorice is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective (good for the liver), and beneficial to the cardiovascular system. In traditional Chinese medicine, licorice is commonly used in herbal compounds to “harmonize” ingredients.


Fenugreek is an annual plant first cultivated in the Levant by 4000 bce. Its seeds are the spice that is especially employed in Indian, Egyptian, Eritrean, and Ethiopian cuisines. Fenugreek is used in traditional medicines to aid digestion and treat inflammation.


Mint is a predominantly perennial plant in the Metha genus, with 13–18 species. Hybrids naturally occur, and there are numerous cultivars.

Leaves are the culinary source of mint. Peppermint and spearmint are the most popular mints. Peppermint is a sterile hybrid of spearmint and watermint. Menthol is derived from mint essential oil.

Mint was originally employed as a medicinal herb to treat stomachache and chest pains. Mint was used to whiten teeth in the Middle Ages.

To other plants, mint makes a good companion by repelling pests and attracting beneficial insects. Mint oil makes for an environmentally friendly insecticide: able to dispatch numerous common household pests.

Oregano / Marjoram

Oregano and marjoram are closely related members of the mint family (Lamiaceae). Marjoram has a more delicate flavor, whereas oregano is more potent: even strong enough to numb the tongue.

Marjoram is indigenous to southern Turkey and Cyprus. To the ancient Greeks and Romans marjoram was a symbol of happiness. Meanwhile, Hippocrates used oregano as an antiseptic, and for stomach and respiratory ailments.

Oregano is native to the warm temperate regions of the Mediterranean and western Eurasia. Though widely used in cuisines in these areas, oregano is most strongly associated with Italian cooking.

Oregano is a strong antioxidant and has antimicrobial activity.


Sage is an evergreen bush in the mint family, with woody stems, grayish leaves, and blue-purple flowers. It has been used since antiquity to ward off evil, heal snakebite, increase fertility, and offer other remedies.

When the Black Death came to take its toll, sage was an ingredient in the legendary Four Thieves Vinegar: a blend of vinegar and herbs believed to protect from the plague. Lore has 4 thieves, caught robbing the dead during the plague, given leniency in exchange for the recipe.

Sage in the Middle Ages was considered a cure-all, sometimes called “sage the savior.” Traditional medicines in many cultures prescribe sage to treat disorders in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. Modern medicine has shown sage as an antibiotic, antifungal, astringent, antispasmodic, and helpful in treating hyperlipidemia and Alzheimer’s.

Sage is one of the few herbs which strengthens as its leaves dry. As a spice, sage is used in salads and cooking meat dishes.


The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. ~ Matthew 13:31, The Bible

Mustard has been cultivated for at least 5,500 years. It remains one of the most popular spices. This small seed has repeatedly represented spiritual significance. Buddha related a parable of mustard seed:

The only child of a young mother, Kisa Gotami, died. Kisa was so grieved that she unable to accept her son’s death. Kisa carried his body from neighbor to neighbor, begging for someone to give her medicine to bring him back to life. One of her neighbors told her to go to Buddha and ask him if he had a way to bring her son back to life.

Kisa found Buddha and pleaded with him to help bring her son back to life. Buddha told her to go back to her village and gather mustard seeds from households that have never been touched by death. From those mustard seeds, Buddha promised to create a medicine to bring her son back to life.

Relieved, Kisa went back to her village, and began asking her neighbors for mustard seeds. All her neighbors were willing to give her mustard seeds, but they all told her that their households had been touched by death.

She came to understand that impermanence is the nature of existence. This realization calmed her grief.

Kisa buried her son and then returned to visit Buddha. She confessed herself unable to obtain any mustard seeds, because she could not find even one house untouched by death.

Buddha observed:

“The life of mortals in this world is troubled, brief, and mixed with pain. There is not any means by which those that have been born can avoid dying. All fall before the power of death.

“So, the world is afflicted with death and decay. Therefore, the wise do not grieve, knowing the terms of the world.

“Not from weeping nor from grieving will anyone obtain peace of mind; on the contrary, pain will be the greater and the body will suffer.

“One who seeks peace should draw out the arrow of lamentation, useless longings, and grief. One who has drawn out this unwholesome arrow and calms oneself will obtain peace of mind. One who has overcome all grief will become free from sorrow and realize nirvana.”

The mustard plant is in Brassica genus, along with other cruciferous vegetables which include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and similar green leafy vegetables.

The 3 main varieties of mustard grown for their seeds as a spice are: white, brown, and black.

White mustard (B. alba) probably originated in the Mediterranean region. The condiment called mustard is concocted using white mustard.

Brown mustard (B. juncea) is native to the sub-Himalayan plains of northern India. Brown mustard is commonly used in north Indian cuisine.

Black mustard (B. nigra) is more commonly seen in south Asia. It is likely indigenous from the Mediterranean through south Asia. Black mustard is commonly used in south Indian cuisine.

Mustard seeds are rich in vitamins B and E, healthy oils, and numerous minerals, particularly selenium.

Nutmeg & Mace

Nutmeg and mace are derived from a dioecious evergreen tree (Myristica) indigenous to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. The tree takes 7–9 years after planting to produce fruit. A tree produces maximum fruit after 20 years.

The fruit of the nutmeg tree is the size of an apricot. The seed of the fruit is covered with an aril: a waxy crimson wrapping.

The aril is dried and ground into the spice mace, which has a more delicate flavor than nutmeg. The seed itself is nutmeg, which has a sweeter taste than mace.

Nutmeg was a pricey, prized spice in medieval Europe. It was one of the spices that the Arabs had a trading monopoly on during the Middle Ages: available to Europeans only through Venetian traders at high prices, who did not divulge their source. Until the mid-19th century, the small island of Banda was the world’s only source of nutmeg.

The Dutch dominated the nutmeg trade in the 17th century, fighting the English for the privilege, and massacring and enslaving the inhabitants of Banda to control its production.

Nutmeg contains myristicin: a psychoactive drug that acts as an anticholinergic agent, blocking the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Anticholinergic agents are classed as a deliriant: causing delirium. Such drugs do not invoke euphoria, and so are generally considered the least enjoyable hallucinogen.

The nutmeg tree puts myristicin in its seeds to keep insects and arachnids from munching them.

The amount of nutmeg spice used in foods produces no noticeable untoward effect on humans. But myristicin is the reason that dogs should not drink eggnog.


Cloves are the aromatic flower buds of an evergreen tree (Syzygium aromaticum) native to the Spice Islands. A clove tree can live for 400 years or more.

Cloves were known in China before the 3rd century bce. By the 2nd century bce cloves were traded in the Levant.

Like nutmeg, colonial traders fought to monopolize cloves. Unlike nutmeg, cloves grew on several islands, and so monopolization was not so simple.

In 1770, a Frenchman smuggled a clove tree off one of the Spice Islands. The tree was eventually transferred to Zanzibar, which is now the world’s largest clove producer.

Cloves clove a place in Chinese, Ayurvedic, and western traditional medicines. They are a carminative (gas preventative), detoxifier, anthelmintic (worm expunger), and anti-inflammatory. Cloves warm the body, boost insulin function, and relieve dental pain.

Indonesians concocted clove-flavored cigarettes – kretek – which are now smoked in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Clove cigarettes were outlawed in the US in 2009, so they are now sold as cigars.

Culinary cloves lend flavor to breads, meats, curries, and marinades. Cloves are incredibly high in manganese, and are otherwise nutritious: with vitamins A, B, C, K, iron, magnesium, calcium, antioxidants.

Poppy Seed

Poppy seeds – the spice – are the ripe seeds of the opium poppy, which produces opiate sap from unripe seed pods. The plant is native to the Middle East.

Poppy seeds featured in medical texts from many ancient civilizations. Ancient Egyptians ad Sumerians used the seeds as a sedative.

Poppy seeds are highly nutritious, and less allergenic than many other seeds and nuts.


Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of the saffron crocus, native to Greece, where it was first cultivated in ancient times. Beside southern Europe, saffron is also indigenous to the steppes of southwest Asia.

Saffron is widely used in Indian, Persian, Arab, Turkish, and European cuisines. Saffron also has a strong pigment that is used as a dye.

Saffron has long been among the world’s most costly spices by weight. For that reason, it has been counterfeited throughout history.

Saffron’s high price owes to its delicacy, and the small part of the plant from which the spice is derived. Only the stigma and styles – the stalks that connect stigmas to the plant – are used for the spice. The saffron crocus blooms each year for 2 weeks at most, with each plant having 4 flowers at most.

Saffron comprises over 150 aromatic compounds. It also has many nonvolatile active phytonutrients.

Saffron is vitamin rich (A, B, C), and contains calcium, copper, potassium, manganese, magnesium, iron, selenium, and zinc. Saffron is used in many traditional medicines as an antiseptic, antidepressant, antioxidant, anticonvulsant, and digestive aid.


The spice vanilla is the seedpod of an orchid vine indigenous to the tropics of Central America. Vanilla planifolia, native to Mexico, is the predominant vanilla harvested for the spice, though there are several different cultivars, some using different species – none match Vanilla planifolia for flavor.

French vanilla is ordinary vanilla spice historically made into an ice cream using eggs, which richen the flavor and give it a deeper yellow, owing to egg yolks within.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to taste vanilla, on 14 September 1502, when he shared a cup of chocolate with a local tribal chieftain in Nicaragua, on his 4th and final voyage to the New World. Columbus’ chocolate drink was laced with vanilla, which was its traditional role as a spice. The Spanish took vanilla home and drank it like Nicaraguan natives: in chocolate.

It was not until 1602 that vanilla was appreciated on its own. Hugh Morgan, apothecary at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, discovered vanilla as a pleasant sweetener of candies on its own.

Early attempts in the 19th century to cultivate vanilla outside Mexico floundered. To grow pods, vanilla requires a specific bee pollinator. Commercially grown vanilla lacks the bee and so must be pollinated manually.

The difficulty of growing vanilla made it an expensive spice, 2nd only to saffron. Madagascar is now the world’s largest producer of vanilla, followed by Indonesia, which grows an inferior cultivar.

Vanillin is primarily responsible for the flavor of vanilla. Piperonal, a related compound, adds to the scent of vanilla oil.

Vanillin was first isolated from vanilla pods in 1858. By 1874, it had been synthesized from glycosides of pine tree sap. This temporarily caused a depression in the natural vanilla industry.

Seedpod extract is a complex mixture of several hundred compounds. Synthetic vanilla is a much simpler solution set in ethanol.

Vanilla makes a modest antioxidant contribution and has a bit of B vitamin content. Vanilla’s flavor exceeds its nutritional contribution.