The Plants of Pumpkin Spice

This time of year we start to see pumpkin spice everything – lattes, cookies, cakes, the list goes on and on. Apart from the pumpkins themselves, many of us are not very familiar with the plants that make up the spice blend that has become so synonymous with everything autumn. Nearly all of these plants are from southeastern Asia despite the fact that pumpkins themselves are native to North America. While each recipe for pumpkin spice varies a little most contain the five spices listed below.

CinnamonCinnamomum cassia  Lauraceae (Laurel Family) Native to Southern China. The dried bark of this plant is used to flavor many different foods, including pumpkin spice. This species makes up the majority of cinnamon sold in the United States although there are several closely related species that can be used as cinnamon, including the  “true cinnamon” (C. verum) which has a more delicate taste. Plants are tropical trees that grow up to 45 feet tall and have glossy, leaves.

NutmegMyristica fragrans Myrsticaceae (Nutmeg Family) Native to Maluku Islands of Indonesia. The seed of this tropical tree is ground to use to flavor mulled cider, mulled wine, and eggnog along with being a common component of pumpkin spice. Plants grow up to 45 feet tall and produce fruit year-round. The spice, mace, is harvested from the same plant and comes from the aril or fleshy seed covering the surrounds the nutmeg seed.

GingerZingiber officinale Zingiberaceae (Ginger Family) Native to southern Asia. The large fleshy rhizome (root) is used both fresh and dried in a large variety of dishes. These tropical herbaceous plants grow 3 to 4 feet tall with reed-like stems that are produced anew each year. The rhizome is harvested after the stems die back. Plants are also quite ornamental and the white to pink buds that open to yellow flowers are used in floral arrangement and the plants are used in ornamental tropical landscapes.

ClovesSyzygium aromaticum  Myrtaceae (Myrtle Family) Native to Maluku Islands of Indonesia. The unopened flowers of this shrubby tropical tree are harvested and dried for use in cooking. Flowers are borne in clusters, turn bright red and when allowed to open have showy white and yellow stamens. Plants grow in mixed tropical forests and prefer low elevations of volcanic mountain slopes. Along with nutmeg, cloves are some of the important spices from the “Spice Islands” of Indonesia.

AllspicePimenta dioica Myrtaceae (Myrtle Family) Native to southern Mexico and Central America. The unripe, green, dried fruit of this tropical tree is used in cuisine across the globe, including Caribbean and Middle Eastern. This small scrubby tree gets between 35 and 60 feet tall and is occasionally used as canopy cover for coffee. The name “allspice” comes from the English who thought its flavor resembled that of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves all combined.

The next time you sip your pumpkin spice latte you can now know a little more about what tropical plants give it that wonderful flavor!

Prepared by Aaron Steil, Assistant Director  |  photo caption: cinnamon