The Wonder of Spices

Thinking of my garden in the Antilles, wanting to go back there again. I remember the time when I stopped and really noticed the form of my bird pepper bush (planted by wild birds). The zigzag stems, with each zig and each zag having one small, lens-shaped leaf and one tiny, conical berry no bigger than a pea.

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I smiled as it struck me that this plant looked like some exotic spice. A moment later, as I was enjoying looking at it, it came to me: it once was! During the Age of Exploration, the West Indies were as exotic to Europeans as the East Indies, and their spices as precious.

Seeing the exoticism of the bird pepper opened my eyes to another facet of the diversity around us. Hundreds of years ago, our ancestors – in whichever part of the world they lived – had but a fraction of the flavors available to them that we enjoy. A scant 200 years ago, nobody would have dreamed of calling anything “plain vanilla” – vanilla is an orchid with exacting requirements and must be hand-pollinated; even today, natural vanilla is the world’s second-most expensive spice. It is only our modern ability to synthesize vanillin that has allowed most of us even to know what it tastes like.

I am one of those people who like my food bursting with flavor. In my home in the Antilles, I often used bird pepper; it only takes one or two of the berries to season the whole pot of food. The diversity of chemical compounds that plants have developed – often for the purpose of protection from herbivory – from our point of view make for a diversity of flavors. We seek these plants out and consume them for the very defensive compounds that they employ to prevent themselves being consumed. So many flavors; and for such an opposite purpose than the many flavors of zoochorous fruits.


I think it’s amazing that two tree species native to a tiny group of islands in Indonesia were the drivers of global exploration, trade, wars, and genocide for hundreds of years. Now they’re just parts of the ubiquitous “pumpkin spice.”


I have just finished reading ‘The Botany of Desire’ by Michael Pollan (very appropriate name for the author!) It is about how certain plants have evolved in tandem with humans and looks at things from the plant’s perspective. Very interesting to think of some of these plants meeting human desires as an evolutionary strategy.

Sounds like the book would be right up your street!


When I read the title my mind immediately jumped to the sci-fi story of Dune. I wonder what the spice melange would have tasted like.

Can you imagine snapping one of those gigantic sandworms for an iNaturalist observation?


Cape Town’s (colonial) history goes back to the Dutch East India Company, and shipping spices via the Cape of Storms.

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