Herb and Spice Plants that Give a Little Extra

Sunday is shopping day at our household. My wife, Kelly and I head out early to avoid the crowds. Besides sneaking things in the cart that I want, my job is to go back and get items we have forgotten so Kelly can continue through the store.

Yesterday, my first mission was to get some fennel root. I had a pretty good idea what fennel root looked like, but it is not something we often need. After two sweeps through the produce section I hadn’t found it yet. The root that I thought was fennel, was labeled as anise.

FennelFinally I asked the produce lady if she had any fennel root, and she directed me to the anise.

I was curious about the mix up, so when I got home, I did a little digging. This is what I found out:

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum -Florence Fennel) and Anise (Pimpinella anisum) both have a distinctive licorice-like aroma. Apparently the flavor of the leaves of a fennel plant, is close enough that the grocers can get away with calling it anise. This practice is typical in the US and the names fennel and anise are commonly used interchangeably.

Checking the discussion sites, I found out that there is a general consensus that Fennel seeds and anise seeds can also be used as substitutes for one another. Both contain an aromatic compound, anethole that gives them the licorice flavor. They are also from the same family (apiaceae), which also contains carrots as well as celery. Though similar, the two seeds are different. Fennel seeds are Aniselarger and have a milder flavor. They are most often used in savory recipes. Fennel seeds go particularly well with pork and are the primary spice used in making Italian sausage. Fennel seeds are also used as one of the spices in Chinese Five Spice.

On the other hand, Anise seeds are sweeter with a stronger licorice flavor which lend themselves to baked goods, but are also used in savory dishes.

A weird thing happened as I was putting the finishing touches on this article this morning. Kelly was telling me about the dry brine she was going to put on the turkey  for Thanksgiving tomorrow, and then she remembered that she didn’t have one of the ingredients, fennel seed. I told her she could use anise seeds, which we did have, as a substitute. She didn’t want to risk it, but it would have worked in a pinch.

Besides the fennel roots (bulbous base), leaves (technically an herb, not a spice) and seeds, the stems, fronds and even the pollen have culinary applications. True anise has a small tap root, not a bulb.

At the beginning of autumn, I became aware of another plant that has two flavor enhancers and is known by two different names. For the first time in many years I planted a garden, with the help of my youngest son. It was a modest undertaking with most of the seeds planted within a 4′ x 8′ raised bed.

CorianderA nearby strip of soil was used for two types of parsley and cilantro. I’m not quite sure why I planted the cilantro. For those who like this herb it is often described as a refreshing lemon or lime flavor. It is popular among many cultures, but perhaps is best known in the US for its use in a variety of Mexican dishes including salsa and guacamole.

To me cilantro has more of a soapy taste. In fact, at family gatherings I refer to cilantro as devil weed. I have noticed that although most people just love the stuff, occasionally I will run into someone like myself who has a passion for disliking devil weed.

Studies have been conducted suggesting that genetics play a strong role in a persons preference to like or dislike cilantro.

Cilantro (Coriandum sativum), is also know by another name, Coriander. The plant itself can be referred to by either name, but for use as an herb (the leaves), cilantro is generally used, and the spice is called coriander seed. Coriander seeds are the fruit of the plant and have a lemony-orange flavor. The seeds are frequently ground and are used in Mid-Eastern, Mediterranean and Indian Cuisine. The roots are also used in a variety of Asian dishes.

NutmegA few years ago, my sister brought me a Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) seed she had gotten while in Puerto Rico. It had a very unusual red webby growth around it. My sister told me that the wrapping was another spice, Mace. According to several sources, this is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices.

When I think of nutmeg, I think of the holidays. It is a traditional ingredient in both eggnog and pumpkin pie. But confining this spice in this way would be unfair. Nutmeg is used by many cultures in many ways.

To be honest, I am not really familiar enough with mace to say much about it. So I went on the web to find a good description of its flavor. I found several, but there was one that stood out, so I will share part of it.

This came from a site by Max Falkowitz called Serious Eats. The article entitled: “Spice Hunting: Mace”, shows Max’s passion for the culinary arts. Max says:

“Imagine a cross between nutmeg and coriander, tinged with citrus and cinnamon. Add to that the same nostril-widening properties that nutmeg, mint, and basil share. Then add the complexity (of) raw sugar.”

To get a more information on mace, as well as a delicious looking recipe for Bourbon Peach and Raspberry Crisp, click here,


Ilustration credits (all courtesy of www.plantillustrations.org):

Foeniculum vulgare Miller [as Foeniculum capillaceum Gilib.] (fennel)
Köhler, F.E., Medizinal Pflanzen, vol. 2: t. 88 (1890)

Note: The variety discussed in the article is azoricum (common name, Florence Fennel) which has an enlarged bulbous base)

Pimpinella anisum L. (anise) Thomé, O.W., Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz, Tafeln, vol. 3: t. 371 (1885)

Coriandrum sativum L. (coriander/cilantro) Thomé, O.W., Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz, Tafeln, vol. 3: t. 389 (1885)

Myristica fragrans Houtt. (nutmeg/mace) Köhler, F.E., Medizinal Pflanzen, vol. 2: t. 132 (1890)

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7 Responses to Herb and Spice Plants that Give a Little Extra

  1. Maria F. says:

    They had nutmeg plants at the Fairchild in Miami, but didn’t see them bloom. Sensitive to frost. Cilantro we grow here in our backyards.


  2. Marie Keates says:

    Here in the UK we always call cilantro coriander. This has caused some confusion when trying to follow American recipes in the past.


  3. Renee says:

    I have alsways wondered about the difference when I went looking for a fennel bulb but could only a feathery tall plant that smelled the same but wasn’t what I was looking for.


  4. Rashad says:

    This is truly helpful, thanks.


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