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What wild and homegrown herbs can we substitute for our store-bought spice cabinet?

 
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Thinking about how we might creatively replace spices and herbs, or how we might find similar but dissimilar plants that could evolve into more regional cuisines is one of my favorite Permie thought exercises!

I'm planting sweet flag around my pond, and just recently read on PFAF that the leaves apparently have a vanilla bean flavor and can be used in ways similar to vanilla. The same PFAF post also says that the root can be powdered and is "spicy" and can sub for ginger, cinnamon, or nutmeg. That's a wide variety, so I'm excited to see what the root actually tastes like (maybe an awesome combo of all three?). Sweet flag is supposed to be hardy down to zone 4, but I bet original poster could make it work with a good microclimate! Also, read up on sweet flag's supposed toxicity, and the potentially carcinogenic oil found in european varieties of sweet flag is apparently not present here in our American varieties (Oikos even sells a guaranteed "American" sweet flag.

Someone already mentioned spicebush (Lindera Benzoin), and this is a great suggestion for replacing allspice. I read somewhere, but can't find the source now, that the actual fruit of the spicebush carries more of the "allspice" flavor, while the seeds inside are more like black pepper. This makes sense since spicebush kind of tastes like a peppery allspice, but taking the time to separate them seems like it'd be maddening. Maybe there's some tricky sink/float way of separating them? Say, through them in a grinder and collect floating seeds? This is all totally conjecture, though.

Another one I'd like to bring up is "Carolina Allspice" or "Sweet Shrub" (Calycanthus floridus), which, like spicebush is a strongly scented native shrub. I've read some neat stuff about how the bark was dried and used by Colonists as a Cinnamon substitute after Native Americans introduced them to it. The rub is that the seeds and leaves are supposed to contain an oil called calycanthine, which is an alkaloid with a similar structure to strychnine, which is, well, bad. Of course, if Native Americans were using it traditionally for longer than we know, I doubt it could be out and out toxic. My hunch is that the concerns are probably another case of the dosage being way exaggerated, and you'd have to eat several tablespoons of cinnamon for an unreasonable number of days before you'd risk serious harm. But unforuntately the info I'd like (% composition of calycanthine by weight in the bark, leaves, and seed) just simply doesn't seem to be available. I've searched quite a bit, so if anyone has any leads, I'd be super appreciative!

Last, I don't know if you'd cocoa as a "spice", but apparently honey locust pods can be crushed up and made into a powder that's like carob, the go-to chocolate sub. I'm planning on trying that out with the honey locust pods beginning to fall here in NJ, so I'll let you know how this goes!
 
Posts: 101
Location: Piedmont, NC
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This is a great example of a thread that while it has been around for a while, it is so very valuable and timeless. . .

I am growing those things that I cannot do without (instead of growing suggested spices that I never use).  Some time back, I quit using black pepper in favor of the cayenne pepper that we grow and dry for our own use.  It has that peppery taste, it is red (much more attractive in foods since it doesn't look like bugs), and it actually tastes better than black pepper to me.  I like knowing that it was grown without chemicals, and I like being able to save my seeds from year to year.  We also enjoy the medicinal value of it and use it liberally in our dog food to keep fleas at bay.  Additionally, I have a strong belief that when we grow things locally, it really helps us in our environment.

Oregano is easy to grow (perennial here), tastes great, and has some great anti-bacterial properties so we use it in deodorant, as well as first aid spray for our animals (the same bottle.)  Of course, it is also a main feature in our spaghetti/pizza sauce.

We grow a couple of different kinds of mint (just because it fell into our laps).  We grow it around the foundation of our house to repel rodents, I make mint extract for food flavorings (ground mint with vodka), we make tea with it for upset stomachs, we love mixing it with chocolate dishes in the summer especially (mint chocolate milk shakes - yum), and I use solar distillations to make the essential oils to add to my soaps.

Fennel is also something we love to grow.  I love the flavor in Italian dishes, with sausage, and in tea for soothing and calming.  It grows so easily.  I think once you start growing it, it will continue on with self-sowing.

Basil is a staple around here.  Not only do I make pesto, but I dry it for sprinkling in egg and potato dishes in addition to Italian pastas.  

We grow our own garlic and put it in oil for many, many dishes.

We use green onions constantly as well as bulb onions.  We are quite successful with the green ones and are awaiting success with the bulb onions.  I think I use at least a half onion daily.  We are still buying them, though, as we can't keep up.

We grow lemon balm and have used it to attract bee swarms, but have yet to use it for lemon extract for foods.  I look forward to exploring this.

We are just now experimenting with saffron, turmeric, and ginger.  As we live in zone 7, turmeric and ginger are iffy.  However, I planted them in an old horse trough we got for free because the bottom was rusted out.  I put ginger in half and turmeric in the other half.  I had read that if I mulched them, them would hang around, and I surmised that the horse trough would be excellent for holding in the leaves.  Ask me later on this.  If they come back out in the Spring, it was a success. These were bought at an organic grocery store in the produce section. . . Our harvest from the saffron was quite miniscule especially after drying.  We shall see. . .

We are growing Lindera Benzoin, as I was looking for a spice that could replace cinnamon.  I actually bought the trees/bushes? from a native plant nursery in our area.  I had read that you needed a male and female for the berries.  This last year, berries showed up but I only got 6 of them that are now dried and in the freezer.  Can't wait to try them, but it seemed like such a small amount. . . .I am thrilled to find out that I could get berries though.  Allspice seems a mixture of all the spices I like to combine with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.  However, I am thrilled to find the bark of the Carolina Allspice or Sweet Shrub. I also can't wait to try the pods of the honey locust for chocolate.  In my experience - it seems that the roasting is what gives things their chocolate flavor - I have tried roasted dandelion roots as well as coffee beans for coffee.  The amount of roasting is key.

I found this article by looking for vanilla substitutes, as I currently buy vanilla beans and mix them with vodka.  I can't wait to try the sweet flag we already have planted around our pond, or our almond trees for almond extract, should they finally bring nuts  (probably 2 - 4 years old since one was replaced.)  

I read a book once that when someone was asked what they planted they said well, I looked at what I was eating, and if I liked it , I planted it.  That really resonated with me.  Thanks so much for all of this info.
 
gardener
Posts: 1074
Location: mountains of Tennessee
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I'm in zone 7 & previously gardened in zone 8. Have not noticed much difference in the spices & herbs that can be grown. Wild spices are somewhat different though. Basils, peppers, onions, garlic, & cilantro are my core group. Planting some mints this years. In TX rosemary was often used as hedges so I didn't bother to plant that. It was easy to find. Chili petin grew wild. It hasn't survived winters here but still trying. Seems to do good good as an annual most of the time. I grow borage for bee food but sometimes use it in stews. I don't especially like the flavor of yarrow or comfrey but I do grow them for their medicinal value.

Wild ginseng grows in certain parts of the mountains here. Trying to establish a few more patches of that. It is rather valuable. I was told early on that if I ever stumble across a still or a ginseng patch to turn around & immediately leave. They were serious. I think ginger would do well too. Chickory grows wild. It makes a decent coffee. Wild onions are common & I often use the greens this time of year. Sassafras trees are abundant here. The roots make a wonderful root beer. Real root beer. The ground leaves are a spice & thickener called file' that is used in gumbo. Yum.

 
Posts: 41
Location: Central Virginia
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Casie Becker wrote:
I think bay leaves are actually "bay laurel" leaves. It's the actual original spice. I have heard of people substituting several native plants for bay leaves, though. Myrtle and Umbellularia californica (which has a huge number of common names including California Laurel) are two of them. Myrtle apparently also has berries that can serve as a substitute for allspice.



Oh yes the California bay's leaves can replace bay laurel, but use half as much. They are strong. Smelling the fresh leaves too much can give you a sharp headache. The bay nuts produced by Umbellularia are very good, are very bitter so must be cooked. I hesitate to state what their taste resembles... I'll say that they go well with potatoes.

Unfortunately that tree grows only in California so until I get back there to do some more wild picking I'm bay-deprived.
 
master steward
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The suggestions about sweet flag and nut extracts are exciting! I'm looking forward to exploring those further. I also love the rose water idea.

Just wanted to chime in that besides actual licorice root, the anise, tarragon, fennel flavors are reminiscent of licorice and while they all sort of impart a sweet vibe (as does vanilla) I do not think they are that sweet themselves. Plus, there are people who can't tolerate that strong licorice flavor, but might tolerate it in milder tones like fennel. Speaking from experience with two family members who have been turned off licorice.

(Also compelled to note that licorice root in high quantities, especially extract doses, can stress the heart or kidneys. This is not as widely known I think.)

We're zone 4 or 5 and now that we've made progress on improving our soils I've had success at overwintering the mainstay herbs we all love:  oregano, thyme, sage, chives, tarragon, marjoram, mint; and I hope the lovage survived my transplant efforts. Walking onions have done remarkably well here, too. We planted loads more last fall.

I'd love to try the black Alexander lovage!

I overwinter rosemary indoors (some survive my care, some don't) and have tried bringing lemongrass indoors as well. Last year's lemongrass didn't make it past fall indoors - oh well.

We were gifted wildcrafted, dried mountain sage - probably from more of a zone 3 here in Montana like Destiny's region. I tried to use it in a few soups and stews but either used too much or the earthy bite to it is not to my liking.

We have copious pineapple weed that volunteers everywhere and is wonderful as chamomile tea - almost an identical flavor.

Our cilantro/coriander has been self-sowing a bit more each year, though I haven't yet saved enough seeds for the kitchen.

We have loads of mustards and pennycress (also a mustard) - both wild and planted by us. Fred has made mustards out of harvested seeds that were just amazing. Adding the greens to sautes is fun, too. I hope to save more seeds for the kitchen going forward.


 
pollinator
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You started the thread with asking for a natural herb to replace vanilla. Here we have a wild herb, the English name is Meadowsweet, in Latin Filipendula ulmaria. It seems the root of that plant gives a vanilla-like taste when added to desserts. I did not yet try it, but I have the plant growing near my small pond.

I have a lot of herbs in my garden, perennials and self-seeding plants. Mint, thyme, rosemary, chives, verbena, borago, etc.
I like foraging in the wild. Some of the wild 'vegetables' I consider more like herbs, because they have such a strong taste. I add some dandelion leaves and wild chives (Allium vineale) to my salad, f.e.
 
Jocelyn Campbell
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That's two votes for meadowsweet now:

Inge Leonora-den Ouden wrote:You started the thread with asking for a natural herb to replace vanilla. Here we have a wild herb, the English name is Meadowsweet, in Latin Filipendula ulmaria. It seems the root of that plant gives a vanilla-like taste when added to desserts. I did not yet try it, but I have the plant growing near my small pond.


And from page one of the thread:

Skandi Rogers wrote:
Vanilla
Meadowsweet (Filipindula ulmaria)
Use in moderation,it contains asprin


You are both so clever to use both the common and botanical names.

Here in Montana, there is a version of a Spirea, Spiraea splendens, that is commonly called Rose Meadowsweet, and while both are in the rose family, I don't think the Spirea has the properties you have both mentioned.

I found Filipendula ulmaria on Wikipedia and also on PFAF. Here's what PFAF (citing Wikipedia, actually) says meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria looks like:



Hm, I thought this might be growing here, too, even though I see that it's native to Europe, with some rather different varieties of Filipendula native to North America. Though many of our herbs here that are 'wild' were introduced by European settlers...

I think that to determine if we have this, I need to properly differentiate between the Spireas (which I know we have) and the Filipendula. From reading about the species Filipendula on Wikipedia:

The species were in the past sometimes treated in a broad view of the genus Spiraea, but genetic research has shown that they are less closely related than previously considered.


(At first, I confused the name meadowsweet with meadow rue, which I know we also DO have, though TIL that is another genus, Thalictrum, in the Ranunculaceae family, NOT the Rosaceae family. So, note to self:  don't mix those up!)

Edited to add that I found another plant called meadowsweet in North America that IS (was?) a Spirea:  Spiraea alba. Also said to contain salicylic acid or aspirin and used medicinally according to this blog post.



 
pioneer
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Location: Kent, UK - Zone 8
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I will admit to not having read the whole thread, but I have been intrigued by the variety of different flavours I have found in mint plants. I have one that tastes identical to a Chocolate Orange!

I haven’t found a way to cook with those flavours yet, but i’m Sure there are possibilities.

Also, I recently saw a peppercorn tree growing for the first time. I was astounded at the quantity of peppercorns it produced.
 
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Location: Southeast Arizona, Latitude 31, Zone 8A, Cold Semi-Arid, USGS Ecoregion 79a
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I love this thread. Thanks, all!

We forage our local wild mustard (Sisymbrium irio, London rocket) greens as a seasoning herb (quite zingy) as well as to eat raw and sautéed. I'm going to try fermenting some ala takanazuke (pickled mustard greens). We haven't used the seeds as seasoning yet because we've been broadcasting those instead, but I make a damn fine fermented mustard from store-bought seed that I'd like to try with foraged seed eventually. There are a number of wild sages around here. We love the Monarda that grows in the mountains near us -- not quite sure which species, quite spicy with a lot of thymol (seems to be called Mountain Mint locally) -- as an oregano or thyme substitute and for an antiseptic tea. It's not culinary, but we use Mormon tea (we think ours is Ephedra trifurca or possibly nevadensis) as an antiseptic tea as well, and sometimes we chew on it while out foraging. We've looked for wild onion, garlic, scallions, shallots, but haven't found yet. Same with spruce and pine tips: We looked for the first time this spring up in the mountains, but were a little late and also didn't see any Engelmann spruce where I thought we would. I've made spruce tip syrup a little north of here before and it was great to add to fermented sodas. I think I also added it to some mead I made. We've collected and dried juniper berries in several places. Each species is so different. We need to keep experimenting.

Has anyone used Netleaf Hackberry (Celtis reticulata or laevigata var. reticulata) as a seasoning? I haven't tried them yet, but my mate says the ones that grow near us are sweet and dry, unlike the juicier but less tasty variety that grows elsewhere in our area (I think maybe Celtis pallida), and I wondered if they might make a good seasoning for sweet things.

I really want to try doing something with Ponderosa pine bark as was suggested re: tasting like vanilla. Do you all think it could be tinctured like vanilla beans, maybe in bourbon? What other barks have others used as seasoning?

In our garden the mint has taken off on greywater under a mesquite, but strangely the lemon balm didn't. Thyme is also doing well there. I just transplanted some rosemary, lavender, and sage near the nurse mesquite but a little farther from the greywater drip line. Tried this last year, too, with a few herbs, but before we had the greywater properly worked out, and things didn't make it. We did manage to grow a few hot peppers, though. We've adopted some Sisymbrium irio to the garden as well. (EDITED TO ADD: It seems sesame may grow well here, and I grew a decent seed crop of it north of here two years ago.) I'd love to grow saffron crocuses somewhere as well, and maybe someday ginger and turmeric.

Many thanks to someone in this thread (1st page) who mentioned making yuzu kosho -- I need to try this! I'm thinking of making a south-of-the-border version with Mexican limes (the little round ones, sweeter than the big ones more widely available elsewhere) and a mix of Mexican hot peppers. Also re: dried papaya seed as black pepper, I can vouch for it being very similar to black pepper and have found good non-GMO papaya at the Mexican grocery we prefer for its produce. Fermented papaya paste with cinnamon is also pretty tasty fresh or dehydrated like fruit leather.
 
Victor Skaggs
Posts: 41
Location: Central Virginia
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If it's vanilla you're after... some experimentation with sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) might prove fruitful. It is listed as a medicinal herb, so presumably safe to eat. I know it dried and used as incense (smudge).

It has a very noticeable vanilla flavor. Before flowering, it is impossible to distinguish from alfalfa (also in the Fabaceae family), but its yellow flowers are easy to identify, and the vanilla flavor is strong if you squeeze a leaf between your fingers.

I used to harvest it in New Mexico but haven't seen it yet here (Virginia). I'm on the lookout, though...

I'd be interested to find out if it works as a culinary vanilla substitute.
 
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