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Original photo by Annmell_sun/ Shutterstock
7 Seasoned Facts About Fall Spices
Read Time: 5m
Article image
Original photo by Annmell_sun/ Shutterstock

Some flavors just beckon with the changing of the seasons. When fall rolls around, many of us begin craving the layered, warming flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and the infamous mix known as “pumpkin spice.” It’s not unusual to turn to spices as we celebrate shorter days and sweater weather — as it turns out, humans have been relying on spices to flavor the season for centuries. Here are seven tantalizing facts you might not know about our favorite autumn spices.

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Pumpkin Spice Is Almost as Old as the United States

Mix of spices, including pumpkin spice.
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Food trends come and go, but pumpkin spice has an enduring power over Americans, perhaps because it originated here in the days of the Founding Fathers. Colonial newcomers learned quickly to cook pumpkins, taking the once-unfamiliar squash and turning it into table fare and brewed beer. So it makes sense that the first cookbook written by an American and published in the U.S., Amelia Simmons’ 1796 work American Cookery, offered up two recipes for “pompkin” pie — which just so happened to be flavored with a blend of nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and mace (a spice made from the webbed covering that grows around nutmeg).

It would take a while, but spice companies eventually caught on to pumpkin spice’s harvest-time popularity, launching their own blends around the same time canned pumpkin puree hit the market in 1929. Despite having few ingredients and being easy to replicate, pumpkin spice has become a spice of its own — McCormick’s first pumpkin pie spice, released in 1934, features the same ingredients nearly 90 years later: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice.

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Cinnamon Trees Were Once Guarded by Secrets and Myths

Cinnamon sticks in the form that they leave the plantations from.
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Cinnamon may just be fall’s favorite spice, considering how much we use its scent to freshen our homes and sprinkle it onto desserts and flavored coffees. But as popular as cinnamon is now, it was once so in-demand that spice traders concealed its real origins to help line their pockets. Cinnamomum trees are native to India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, but early merchants drove up the price by telling outlandish tales of how it was dangerous to harvest the bark of the trees thanks to aggressive “winged creatures” in distant lands. Amazingly, their efforts helped keep cinnamon’s real habitat secret for centuries.

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Cloves Were the Original Breath Mint

Closeup of cloves in wooden teaspoon on wooden background.
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Cloves are grown in Madagascar, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, but a staggering amount of the spice — 74% in 2019 — comes from Indonesia, where the dried flowers of the native Syzygium aromaticum tree are harvested. Today’s cloves are mostly used to add sweetness and warmth to dishes, but these pods — also called “nails” for their resemblance to the fastener — were once used in ancient China as breath mints. To avoid the offense of bad breath, visitors to the Han dynasty royal court around 200 BCE would pop a clove into their mouths before meeting with the emperor, though the spice could also be used as a natural anesthetic to treat toothaches.

By the Middle Ages, cloves had reached Europe, where they were used to season food at a high price that wouldn’t deflate for centuries. In the 1600s, Dutch traders who held the clove monopoly regularly destroyed Syzygium trees and portions of the clove harvest to create scarcity and drive up spice prices. But starting in 1770, French smugglers whisked clove seedlings out of Indonesia to create their own supply, eventually pushing down the price. Today, you don’t have to go far to find cloves: They’re commonly found in ketchup but get the most use in autumnal fare like pumpkin pie and spice cake.

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There’s No Such Thing as “Wild” Ginger

Fresh ginger at the farmer's market.
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Humans have revered ginger for more than 2,500 years, rightly crediting the spicy root with calming nausea and upset stomachs. But a few things aren’t so true about ginger — it can’t cure the plague as medieval doctors once believed, and it’s not a naturally growing plant species. Botanists consider ginger a cultigen: a plant that doesn’t exist naturally in the wild, and was instead bred by early humans so much that it became fundamentally different from its wild ancestors.

Ginger slowly spread across the world from India over the centuries, thanks to Arab, Spanish, and Portuguese traders. In Europe, the pungent rhizome was a 16th-century favorite — even beloved by British monarch Queen Elizabeth I, who’s credited with serving gingerbread men cookies at royal banquets.

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Nordic Countries Consume the Most Cardamom

An antique scoop tin scoop filled with cardamom seeds and cloves.
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Cardamom is native to India, where farmers have undertaken the labor-intensive harvest of its green, seed-filled pods for at least 5,000 years. With a spicy citrus flavor, the spice is commonly used in rice, desserts, and chai spice blends for a warming tea on a crisp day. But nowhere is it more sought-after than in some Nordic countries: Sweden claims the second-highest cardamom consumption, following only Norway, whose citizens consume almost 30 times more per capita than any other nation.

It’s unclear how cardamom — often considered the world’s third-most expensive spice because it must be harvested by hand — became so popular in Scandinavian countries. Some historians believe the spice took hold between the eighth and 13th centuries, and it continues to fuel cold-weather dishes like meatballs, sweet buns, and holiday glögg.

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Nutmeg Enthusiasts Once Carried Their Own Spice Graters

A girl rubs a nutmeg on a fine grater in a bowl.
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Modern chefs reach for nutmeg when cooler temperatures linger, generally using the warm and nutty flavor to spice up pies, drinks, and other sweets. But at one point in history, nutmeg was used just as frequently as black pepper is today. Sourced from the seeds of the Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree found in Indonesia’s Banda Islands, nutmeg was first used as far back as 3,500 years ago, archaeologists believe. By the 14th century, spice traders considered it more valuable than gold. Nutmeg flourished in popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, and wealthy connoisseurs of the spice began carrying their own miniature graters so they could season meals to their liking.

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Allspice Is Just One Spice

Pile of all spice dried berries.
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Allspice has gone by many names. Because the dried berry harvested from Pimenta dioica trees found in the West Indies looks like a peppercorn, it’s sometimes called Jamaica pepper or myrtle pepper. In the 17th century, Londoners introduced to the spice deemed it the unimaginative “newspice.” But the name we most commonly use was given around the 1600s because the flavor resembled a blend of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Over time, the name has become something of a confusing misnomer, but the spice used to flavor apple cider, spiced wine, and other autumnal treats is really in a category of its own.