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Holiday spices from tropical plants

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By Jeneen Wiche

Spices fuel exploration
Considering how the quest for exotic spice fueled exploration around the world in the 15th century, it is no wonder that our favorite holiday flavors herald from around the world. From Southwest India to Southeast Asia we find cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace.
True cinnamon comes from the bark of Cinnamomum zeylanicum, an evergreen tree native to Southwest India. This is the premium spice that is harvested just as new growth emerges from 2-year old stems. It has a light brown color and the interior of the quills (the curled strips) consist of several layers. Common cinnamon is harvested from Cinnamomum cassia, has a darker color, stronger flavor and more reasonable price!
Cloves come from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. These so called “Spice Islands” were once the only source of nutmeg and mace, as well. Cloves are the dried, unopened flowers of the tree Syzygium aromaticum. Nutmeg and mace come from the fruit of Myristica fragrans: the seed of the fruit is ground for nutmeg and the leathery, lacy seed covering is ground to produce mace.  All these spices promote healthy digestion and have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, among other things.  It’s flavor that packs a punch in more ways than one.
Mighty ginger
Perhaps the mightiest holiday flavor is found in ginger. Zingiber officinale is one of many different species of this flowering tropical plant. It is native to Southeast Asia although most commercial ginger is grown in Australia, California and Jamaica.  The edible ginger rhizome has properties that help aid digestion, ease motion sickness, stimulate circulation and act as an anti-inflammatory.  Some insist that it is an aphrodisiac and strengthens both body and spirit. Above all, however, ginger acts as a natural preservative that made it a valuable commodity before the age of refrigeration.  In fact, during medieval times, ginger was the second most traded spice after pepper.  
Fungus fuels gingerbread
In the book Famine on the Wind, it is suggested that an inventive baker who was trying to save flour that had been spoiled by a grain fungus called smut may have developed gingerbread. The smut caused the flour to be discolored and rancid, so the baker added a little molasses for sweetening and coloration and enough ginger to mask the foul taste. History was made if, in fact, this is true.
Since medieval times the gingerbread became a popular food item at bakeries and fairs where women would buy gingerbread “husbands” believing that by eating them their chances of meeting a real husband would increase.  By the 17th century in England gingerbread bakers had the exclusive right to produce the bread except on Christmas and Easter.  This prohibition except during the holidays is likely why they are so closely associated with Christmas.  Perhaps we should consider working all the so-called holiday spices in more frequently throughout the year.  
Gingerbread entered the mainstream in the 19th century when the brothers Grimm published a collection of German tales including that of Hansel and Gretel and their house made of gingerbread.  Children everywhere now had romantic notions about gingerbread houses, gingerbread men and women, and gingerbread cookies.  
(Jeneen Wiche is an avid gardener from Shelbyville. She can be reached at www.JWiche@shelbybb.net.)