Take Thyme to Celebrate Herbs and Spices Day Monday June 10

There’s no point in dilly-dallying about it: National Herbs and Spices Day may be a relatively new unofficial holiday (it’s been observed since 2015, although there was an Herb Day in 1999), but this celebration has prehistoric roots: There’s indirect archeological evidence, mostly pollen analysis, that some of the first humans were sage enough to use plants with aromatic properties, although we don’t know if it was in food, or for some other reason.

Better clues come from Mesopotamia and Egypt. Tablets from Mesopotamia dating back to 3000 BCE mention cumin and fennel while The Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text from around 1550 BCE containing 700 “magical” formulas, includes spices such as coriander and highly perishable saffron.

It’s hard to say which other herbs and spices were available then, but we do know that the first spice trade, which began in 1,000 BCE and lasted 2,500 years, made valuable commodities of some of the seasonings that fill modern spice racks today:

  • Black pepper. Considered a luxury good and the most valuable of all spices, black peppercorns were treasured for their pungent flavor and purported medicinal properties. Being native to South India, they were also difficult to come by and expensive to transport. 
  • Cinnamon. Originating in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), cinnamon was said to be worth its weight in gold because it was so difficult to get.
  • Ginger. Ginger was valued for its unique flavor and was believed to have medicinal uses.
  • Cloves. Strong and aromatic, cloves were used in cooking, medicine, and even religious ceremonies. 
  • Nutmeg and mace. Both derived from the nutmeg tree, they were sought after for their unique flavor and aroma. Nutmeg was rarer, so more expensive.

The development of new trade routes, particularly between Asian, the Middle East, and Europe, helped put a wider range of herbs and spices on the table. Despite their greater availability, the search for spices led directly to the Age of Exploration, a period marked by European voyages of discovery that led to the colonization of new land and reshaped global trade patterns. Controlling the trade routes made countries and empires incredibly wealthy. 

In short, herbs and spices have historically had a profound effect on commerce and, to no small degree, shaped world history.

Meaning they have a lot more going for them than just being the secret behind the Colonel’s fried chicken.

Growing your own

Spices come from various parts of plants, and the specific part used determines the unique flavor and aroma of the spice. 

For example, cumin, fennel, coriander, mustard, cardamom, and nutmeg all come from the seeds of plants, while allspice berries, black peppercorns, cayenne pepper, and paprika are derived from fruits. Cloves are the unopened flower buds of the clove tree, saffron comes from the dried stigmas of crocus flowers, and cinnamon is derived from tree bark. Ginger and turmeric are examples of spices that come from the roots of plants. 

And then there are the leafy plants we mostly know as herbs, including bay leaves, basil, mint, oregano, thyme, and rosemary.

Growing herbs on a windowsill or outdoors is generally easy. You just have to:

  • Consider the growing conditions the plant prefers — sunlight, temperature, and drainage.
  • Use high-quality soil. Well-draining potting mix is essential for most herbs and spices.
  • Water correctly. Overwatering is a common mistake. Water only when the soil feels dry to the touch.
  • Harvest regularly to encourage new growth and keep your herb plant full and bushy.

See What’s New

It’s still possible to be a spice explorer today. There’s always something unique for you to discover. You might not be familiar with: 

Huacatay (Tagetes minuta). Native to the Peruvian Andes and used in Peruvian sauces, salsas, and dips, its aroma is often described as a combination of anise, cilantro, and mint with a hint of citrus. 

Grains of Paradise (Aframomum melegueta). This West African native, also known as alligator pepper, has a complex flavor profile: citrusy, and slightly ginger-like. It is used in stews, soups, and curries.

Tasmanian Pepper (Tasmannia lanceolata). As its name suggest, this peppery spice is native to Tasmania, Australia. Often used in seafood and vegetable recipes and marinades, it’s milder than black peppercorn and has some citrusy and woody notes. 

Sumac. Sumac (Rhus coriaria): Sumac is a ground spice made from the dried berries of the sumac plant, which is native to the Middle East. It has a tart and acidic flavor similar to lemon juice. Sumac is often used in Middle Eastern cuisine, particularly on grilled meats and vegetables.

Stay spicy, my friends


A visit to specialty spice stores and ethnic markets is a great way to expand your palette for National Herbs and Spices Day. Or stop by an organic skincare shop to sample products infused with chamomile, mint, lavender, calendula, green tea, and other herbs known to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, or astringent properties.

Or, best of all, head to the garden shop to add some herbs to your raised beds or planters.

Most of all, have fun. And don’t let anything herb your enthusiasm for this “seasonal” holiday.

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