Hawaii could be called the Spice Island considering that the spices and herbs of the East Indies and the Mediterranean are also easily grown here. Fresh herbs and spices are a natural for outdoor or kitchen gardening.
Homegrown flavoring plants will add interest and piquant taste to the ordinary round of vegetables, meats, pasta and rice dishes. Herbs and spices also add a delightful tang to dressings for chicken, turkey, vegetarian and pork dishes. Many plants are readily available at local garden shops. They will do well provided the soil is well drained and has sufficient nutrients. Some like rosemary do best in full sun. These are the Mediterranean types. Others favor damp, shady spots. As an example, mint does well in a shady spot near a dripping faucet. If you are in doubt, Sunset’s New Western Garden Book is a good source of information.
A spot for growing your own seasoning takes almost no area at all. Often, you can squeeze the plants into the space between ornamental plants or along the border of the flowerbed. They can also be grown in pots on the lanai or even near a bright kitchen window.
Herbs for cooler areas are dill, coriander, anise, sage, sweet marjoram, thyme, lavender, rosemary and sweet fennel, but don’t plant that group in hot wet coastal areas unless you plan to give extra insect and disease control.
Warm-weather types you may plant are basil, chives, oregano, summer savory, catnip, borage, lemon verbena, tarragon, mints, pot marjoram, citronella, vanilla, chili peppers, turmeric, cardamom, Thai galangal and edible ginger.
Basil is considered one of the finest spices for use in pickling. It is of two types, sweet green basil and the dwarf form. A very few plants are sufficient for the needs of the average family. Sometimes one or two basil plants may be grown in the flower border. The leaves and flowers have a clove like, spicy flavor and are prized for use in spiced vinegar, for pickles, in gravies, for soups, stews, salads and meats and in fish cookery. Basil is an especially choice flavor for tomato dishes. When dried and powdered, basil is used for spicing meat or other fish, sausage, liver paste and similar products. The flowers along with the tender tips of the stems with their foliage are cut, tied in very small bunches and dried.
The chive plant is the smallest member of the onion family. Its tiny bulbs grow in thick bunches, but the young tender leaves that may be cut freely have a delicate and pleasing flavor similar to a very mild onion. Chives add a gentle snap to salads and dressings, dry-bean dishes, jellied chicken, hot vegetables and omelets. Plant grow to a height of 6 or 8 inches with dark green, grass like foliage and bear pretty, violet clusters of bloom. They should be used more often as ornamental border plants. They are propagated by dividing the clumps and resetting in the fall, preferably in rich soil. In Brasil folks believe a border of chives repels snakes, but since we don’t need to worry about snakes here, it’s hard to prove.
Edible ginger, often confused with the common ornamental ginger, grows well in Hawaii and produces choice roots if given rich soil and sufficient moisture. Ginger will long remain one of the world’s most popular spices and should be grown in every home garden. It is an erect herb, 12 to 24 inches high, canna-like in appearance. It grows from thickened rhizomes that branch finger like and send up new shoots from the tips near the surface of the soil. If used for preserving or candying, the roots should be dug while tender and succulent, rather than when old, tough and fibrous. Fresh green ginger is an indispensable part of chutneys, giving them much of their spiciness and pungent flavor. It, like many other ginger relatives, has medicinal qualities as well.
Vanilla vines are easy to grow from sea level to 2000 feet elevation, but flowering and bean production is a bit more complicated. If the vines are receiving too much water, fertilizer and shade, they will not bloom. Overwatering can cause fungus rot as well. Pollinating by hand is required and takes expertise since timing is critical. Since vanilla vines are almost epiphytic, they do quite well in an organic medium like coconut husks. They must have something to climb like trees or a trellis structure.
You can also grow your own Peppercorn plant or Piper nigrum to produce black, white and red peppercorns.
Harvesting and curing of herbs and spices are the most important parts of the flavor-growing hobby. The main point is to gather each plant at the proper stage of maturity and dry rapidly in a warm, dry place, so that it will retain flavor and color. Herbs, when sufficiently dry, are crisp. Many are stored in powder form. Separate the leaves from the stalk before crushing into a powder. The knack for using herbs is often a well-guarded secret. Some rules to follow in developing your own secrets include using a light hand. You want just enough to compliment your dish, not to overwhelm the flavor of the food. Be subtle with blends so that only you and an expert can tell which herbs you have used. When using fresh herbs, chop them very fine so that more of the herb oils can escape. Blending or heating with butter or olive oil is the best way to bring out and extend the flavor.
If you have room for trees, don’t forget Alspice, Cloves, Nutmeg, Bay, Bay rum, Cinnamon, Moringa and other flavor trees. With a little effort you can have your private herb and spice garden almost anywhere in Hawaii.