My Christmas Eve project was making gingerbread men. And that got me thinking about the far-flung biodiversity it takes to do this.
Starting with the ginger – becuse they wouldn’t be gingerbread without ginger – I find that Zingiber officinale, after which the Ginger Family Zingiberaceae is named, is a true cultigen that does not exist in a wild state, and originated in what is termed “Maritime Southeast Asia,” that is the Sunda and Philippine archipelagoes. Yet it has been traded for so long that it was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Then the cinnamon. The true cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum in the Laurel Family Lauraceae originated in Sri Lanka; but I believe that my supply is the cassia cinnamon, Cinnamomum cassia, native to southern China. Both of these were also known to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
And let’s not forget the cloves, Syzygium aromaticum, in the Myrtle Family Myrtaceae. This is endemic to a single archipelago, the Malukus – once known as the Spice Islands because of their three endemic spices. These are especially evocative for me because they could be seen on the horizon during my crossing-the-equator initiation.
The spice needs to be set off with sweetness. The brown sugar and molasses are extracted from sugarcane, Saccharum officinale, in the Grass Family Poaceae. This one is fascinating in that it originated in New Guinea and was carried in prehistoric times as far as Polynesia and Madagascar, but crystalline sugar as we know it was invented in India, as described in Sanskrit and Pali texts.
All this is very well, but the structure of the cookie comes from plain old wheat flour. Plain? Triticum aestivum – also in the Grass Family – is a Middle Eastern species, although it reached Britain and Northern Europe in ancient times.
Five species in four botanical families, all produced by different ecosystems. What ecological interactions must they have had in evolutionary time? The Wikipedia articles about the spices emphasized how expensive they were historically. How things have changed; now, when I am in the Dominican Republic, I can go to a produce stand and purchase fresh ginger root that someone local probably grew in their garden.