One of the discoveries I made while reviewing Tasha Greer’s “Grow Your Own Spices” (Cool Springs Press, 2021) is that the licorice plant is a suitable garden choice throughout Southern California. As long as winter temperatures don’t drop below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, you can grow this vigorous perennial that will grow into a five-foot-tall shrub with highly decorative flowers. (Note: this is the confectioner’s liquorice and is unrelated to Helichrysum petiolare, an attractive ground cover also known as the liquorice plant because of its smell.)
No, you won’t see black and red twizzlers hanging from the stems, but you can enjoy chewing on the sweet roots and rhizomes that add flavor to commercial licorice. Licorice flowers (Glycyrrhiza glabra) will remind you of the ones you see on clover, and this is no coincidence as clover and licorice are both legumes, meaning that they use symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria to make their own nitrate fertilizer. These bacteria live in the tubers of all members of the legume family and reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers. Legumes include peas, beans, and many drought tolerant trees such as carob, mimosa (Albizzia julibrissin), cassia, acacia, and mesquite, and all plants that produce pods. Because of their drought tolerance and self-fertilization ability, legumes are recommended for desert planting.
Licorice needs a little water, especially at a young age, but it produces a strong root system and rhizomes. This means you can peel off rhizomes for culinary, confectionery, or medicinal purposes without disturbing the roots. It is recommended that the roots and rhizomes be left in the ground for at least three years to appreciate their beneficial properties. Greer writes that “the medicinally effective glycyrrhizin will intensify when plants are grown for 5 years.” Licorice “shines in its ability to coat and soothe irritated tissues in the digestive and respiratory tracts,” and you can “use the dried root to make a sweet cup of tea.” Just be careful not to overdose on licorice extract, as “high doses can cause high blood pressure and other potentially serious side effects.”
Although the aforementioned type of licorice is native to the Mediterranean, there is another type that is native to many areas of the United States, including California. Known as wild or American licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota), it attracts butterflies with its white clusters of flowers. American and European licorice seeds are widely available through Internet service providers.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) and turmeric (Curcuma longa), which are closely related plants, are in demand with cooks and pharmacists alike. I asked Greer, whose spice garden and greenhouse is in North Carolina – but who grew up in La Habra, Orange County, moved to Bloomington in the Inland Empire, and went to college in Santa Barbara – if we could grow our ginger and turmeric portion of the country. Your answer was yes.
You don’t have to go far to find the rhizomes of these plants if you want to grow them in your garden. They are available in most supermarkets. Make sure the rhizomes you take home have eyes that sprout shoots. Greer shared that these rhizomes are sometimes sprayed with growth retardant to keep them from sprouting on the supermarket shelf. So if you take them home, soak them for a few hours if you want to sprout them yourself for later planting outdoors.
This is the ideal time to get your ginger and turmeric rhizomes. Greer places them on a warm kitchen counter near her refrigerator and watches them sprout in winter. Then, in March, she plants them outside. Although she grows hers in a greenhouse, she says we can cultivate her outdoors in Southern California as long as we are aware of her need for even soil moisture. Morning sun with afternoon shade is recommended.
In addition to detailed instructions for growing and propagating, “Grow Your Own Spices” contains the medicinal benefits of the individual spices. Turmeric is named “One of the Best Selling Herbal Supplements in America”. It is recommended for its effectiveness in reducing joint pain in inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. The antioxidant activity can also help fight off degenerative diseases associated with aging. “
I’ve always thought of cinnamon, allspice and the black pepper that accompanies the salt on every dining table as tropical spices that no one should grow outside the equatorial regions. Not like that, Greer informed me. As long as you are growing these plants in containers, you can keep them outside in Southern California for most of the year and then continue cultivating them indoors when nighttime temperatures drop in the fall.
The trick with this is to make sure they have an excellent source of extra light – even if they are positioned near windows – when you bring them in. For this purpose, Greer recommends LED light. LED light is conveniently projected from gooseneck lamps, be it the single-head or 3-head desk lamp. She turns on her auxiliary lighting in the morning and turns it off at night.
It’s not too late to purchase lavender-flowered Crocus sativa bulbs, whose bright purple stigmas (female flower parts) are a source of saffron for you when the flowers bloom. Saffron crocus is of Mediterranean origin and therefore, unlike crocus species from a cold winter habitat, saffron crocus bulbs do not need vernalization (cold treatment) in order to grow in spring. In addition to making a culinary spice, make a saffron tea out of the scars, which “offers powerful antidepressant effects that can lift people’s spirits”.
Juniper berries are used to make gin, but can also be used to flavor brandy and vodka. Not every species of juniper is suitable for this purpose, but one of them is native to California (Juniperus californica) and grows into a 30-foot tree. Dry the berries and “make your own liquors by soaking a tablespoon or two in a bottle of brandy or vodka for a couple of weeks to extract the flavor. Add honey and rosemary to make it sweeter and more botanical. Sieve and serve. “
Tip of the week: Ginger lilies – related to culinary ginger but not of any kitchen interest – have flowers known for both their scent and exotic beauty. Few members of the ginger family bloom in our region, which for many of them is not tropical enough to bloom, but ginger lilies are the exception. White ginger lily (Hedychium coronarium) is the most fragrant, while kahili ginger lily (Hedychium gardnerianum) is more common, with 18-inch flare-like yellow flower clusters with red stamens. Kahili ginger, which grows to eight feet in height, spreads dramatically in a lightly shaded garden. The brightly colored clam ginger that I saw growing at the Los Angeles Zoo has green and yellow striped leaves and serves in a stunning way as indestructible rhizomatic ground cover.
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