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The Spice World Tour

Home-grown zest, from cinnamon to curry, is possible in O.C. Some of these plants, which can add a new dimension to cooking, are even ornamental. Caper flowers, says one expert, 'are so extraordinary they stop people in their tracks.'

April 17, 1999|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Think exotic spices can be grown only in sultry, tropical locales? Think again. Our climate is mild enough to grow a number of spices, from capers to curry. Some even grow as houseplants.

"Many people already grow herbs, so the next logical step is adding spices to the garden," says Alex Silber, manager of Papaya Tree Nursery in Granada Hills. He will be displaying a number of spice plants at the Southern California Spring Garden Show at South Coast Plaza today and Sunday.

Allspice and cinnamon plants have aromatic leaves that impart the same flavor as their fruit and bark. And curry leaf has a strong Indian flavor.

Many of these plants are also highly ornamental, says landscape architect Shirley Kerins, who is curator of the herb garden at the Huntington Library Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

"The coffee bush has shiny green leaves, white flowers and berries that turn from green to red. It looks wonderful in a container on a deck or in an atrium," she says. "Caper flowers are so extraordinary they stop people in their tracks. In summer, the plants are covered with pure-white 3- to 4-inch flowers with bright purple, almost iridescent stamens."

Allspice, also an ornamental plant, is surprisingly easy to grow, says Roger Meyer, co-owner of Valley Vista Kiwi in Fountain Valley.

"Allspice is one of the few plants I've found that will thrive on the north side of a building in a shady spot," he says. "It grows well in a 5- to 15-gallon pot for many years."

Using exotic spices in the kitchen brings a new dimension to your cooking, says Tina Silber of Papaya Tree Nursery, where you can get a mature cinnamon tree in a 1-gallon container for $28 and wher other spice plants range from $15 for curry to $25 for allspice.

"I use many fresh spices, especially allspice leaves and capers," she says.

Silber uses allspice in everything from desserts to main dishes. One of her favorite treats is to add 10 fresh allspice leaves to 3 pounds of peeled and cubed sweet potatoes or yams. To this she mixes in 1 cup of coconut milk, an 8-ounce can of pineapple cubes with juice, 2 ounces of water and half a cup of sugar. She cooks it uncovered in a 350-degree oven until the yams or sweet potatoes are al dente.

Allspice tea is another favorite. Silber adds 20 leaves to four or five cups of water and boils for 10 minutes. She strains and sweetens to taste.

The following spice plants grow well here.

* Allspice (Pimenta dioica): Allspice plants grow so well in Southern California that David Silber, who founded Papaya Tree nursery 13 years ago, can't imagine why every yard doesn't have one.

This evergreen plant has deep green leaves and will grow to 8 feet, but it becomes lanky at that height and is best kept pruned to 5 or 6 feet. It is not picky about sun exposure, tolerating full sun or partial shade. Although it can handle extremes in temperatures, it is best planted in a sheltered location. It grows well in most soils with good drainage.

Feed monthly with an all-purpose fertilizer spring through fall. During winter, fertilize once with a food high in micronutrients that contains no nitrogen. Water allspice when the soil approaches dryness or when young leaves begin to droop.

Allspice leaves are extremely aromatic--tasting and smelling like a mixture of spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Commercially, the fruit is used to make allspice powder, but fruiting requires male and female trees. For the same taste, fresh leaves can be used. (When dried, leaves lose their flavor and aroma.)

* Caper bush (Capparis spinosa): Capers are the unopened flower buds of this low-growing, scrambling deciduous shrub that grows about 2 feet high but will spread 4 or 5 feet wide. The plant cascades and looks good growing over the side of a retaining wall or raised bed or in a large hanging basket.

Though the flower buds are used as spices, many people let the plant flower. Caper bushes produce stunning 3- to 4-inch white flowers with iridescent purple stamens.

When picked small, caper buds are mild. Larger buds that are about to bloom have a richer, fuller flavor.

The caper bush, which is drought-tolerant once established, should not be over-watered. Water only during its growing season, from spring through November. Let the soil dry out between waterings. Container plants should be elevated to keep the roots dry.

Plant in an area with excellent drainage, amending with 50% cactus mix for ground and container growing. The plant will handle full sun, but the flower buds stay fresh longer if grown in partial shade. During active growth, fertilize every two months with an all-purpose fertilizer.

To grow enough caper flowers for pickling, plant two or three bushes.

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