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biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Food and drink biodiversity:

Cullinary herbs and spices

Allium sativum (Garlic)

Family: Alliaceae

Garlic is grown as a vegetable and is also used for medicinal purposes because of its natural antibacterial and antifungal properties. Allium sativum is a domesticated species, thought to have originated from Allium longicuspis which is native to Central Asia. Evidence from Egyption tombs shows that domestication of garlic goes back to at least 3200 BC. Modern garlic varieties are propagated vegetatively because seeds are infertile. 

Allium schoenoprasum (Chives)

Family: Alliaceae

Native to Europe and Asia and believed to have been domesticated within the Mediterranean region. The earliest records of cultivated chives go back to only the 16th century. The leaves of chives are have a mild flavour and are cut up and added to salads, egg dishes, meat dishes, sauces and cottage cheese.


Anethum graveolens (Dill)

Family: Apiaceae

Dill is an annual or biennial herb that is native to southwestern Asia and southern Europe. Fresh leaves are chopped up and added to salads or used in seasoning fish dishes. The seed-like fruit are used in pickling gherkins or added to butter ('dill butter'), vinegars, cheeses, bread, vegetables and sauces.


Angelica archangelica (Garden angelica)

Family: Apiaceae

Angelica is native to Europe and Asia and is cultivated in southern Africa, although commercial cultivation is mainly in Europe. Leaves are eaten as a vegetable and the petioles and inflorescence stems are candied (usually coloured green) for cake decoration. It is used as a tonic and flavouring in wines and spirits (gin, chartreuse, Bénédictine, vermouth and vespétro).


Anthriscus cerefolium (Chervil)

Family: Apiaceae

Chervil is an annual herb native to Central Asia, from Iran to southern Russia. Leaves can look rather like those of parsley. It was cultivated as a cullinary herb at least from Greek and Roman times. Along with parsley, tarragon and chives, it is one of the components of fines herbes used by French chefs. Fresh and dried leaves are used in soups, fish dishes, egg dishes, sauces (e.g. bèarnaise and gribiche), and as a constituent in salad dressings.


Armoracia rusticana (Horseradish)

Family: Brassicaceae

Horseradish is a pungent herb with leaves that are used in salads and sandwiches, and roots that are used for sauces that are added to meat. It is also used for various medical complaints. It is a sterile cultigen thought to have originated in southern Russia and Eastern Ukraine. It has become naturalised in Europe, North America and New Zealand, where it can be found growing along roadsides. Cultivation dates back only to about Roman and Greek times, about 2000 years ago. 


Artemisia dracunculus (French tarragon)

Native to Eurasia. It is a very important cullinary herb in French cooking and is one of the four ingredients in fines herbes (the other three being parsley, chervil and chives). It is added to white wine vinegar to produce tarragon vinegar, which is used in salads, sauces, pickles and with fish. Fresh leaves are used to flavour meat, chicken and egg dishes, as well as sauces (including béarnaise, hollandaise and tartare) (van Wyk 2005).


Borago officinalis (Borage)

Family: Boraginaceae

Believed to be native to the Middle East but ocurs naturally in southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. Grown as a garden herb. The leaves and flowers are used more for decorating drinks (e.g. gin) and food (e.g. salads) than for consumption. Flowers are sometimes crystalised and used to decorate puddings and cakes. Oil is extracted from the seeds and used as a dietary supplement (termed "starflower oil") because it contains very high levels (21%) of unsaturated gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is an essential fatty acid.

Brassica nigra (Black Mustard)

Family: Brassicaceae



Brassica juncea (Indian or Brown Mustard)

Family: Brassicaceae



Capparis spinosa (Capers)

Family: Capparaceae

Native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean region. Capers are the unopened buds of this plant, pickled in white wine vinegar (Sicilian capers are pickled in brine). Capers are used to flavour many foods including fish, meat, rice, or as garnish for e.g. pizzas.


Capsicum annuum (Paprika pepper)

Peppers orginate from Central America where most of the main varieties (sweet and chilli/pungent) were developed by local Indians. Once peppers were discovered by the Spaniards and Portuguese they were rapidly introduced worldwide and eagerly incorporated into local cuisines. Paprika pepper is derived from the dried, ground up fruit of the Paprka chilli cultivar. 


Capsicum frutescens (Cayenne pepper, Tabasco pepper, Red pepper)

A perennial herb that originates from Central and South America. There are two main cultivars namely 'Tabasco', which is used to make Tabasco sauce, and 'Habanero', which is claimed to be the hottest of all chillis. Cayenne pepper and red pepper are derived from the dried powdered fruits.


Carum carvi (Caraway)

Family: Apiaceae

Native to the Mediterranean region, central Europe and western and eastern Asia. It has been used since ancient times to flavour a wide variety of foods, including stews, sauerkraut, cheeses, breads and biscuits. It is also an ingredient in the following alcoholic drinks: aquavit, kümmel, schnapps and Vespétro.


Cinnamomum aromaticum (Chinese cinnamon, cassia bark)

Family: Lauraceae

The bark is used in a similar manner to true cinnamon bark from Cinnamomum verum. It has a stronger flavour than true cinnamon and is cheaper so is quite often used as a substitute for the latter.


Cinnamomum verum (Cinnamon)

Family: Lauraceae

This medium-sized tree is the source of true cinnamon and is native to Sri Lanka and India. The spice is derived from the bark and has a sweet, spicy flavour. It is used in puddings, confectionery, mulled wine, sauces, red meat dishes, chicken dishes, pickles and soups. The flavour is mainly due to cinnamaldehyde, which is the main component in the essential oil derived from cinnamon.


Coriander sativum (Coriander, Cilantro)

Family: Apiaceae

Originates from the eastern Mediterranean region and western Asia and has a long history of cultivation. Coriander leaves are used to flavour a wide variety of dishes including soups, guacamole and fish. The fruits are used as a spice in pickles, vegetable dishes, soups and marinades and are an ingredient in curry powder. They are also used in baking (e.g. bread and biscuits) and for flavouring alcoholic drinks such as Chartreuse and Izarra. The leaves have good levels of calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A and vitamin C.


Crocus sativus (Saffron)

Family: Iridaceae

Native to southern Europe and southwestern Asia. Saffron is derived from the stigmas and styles of this flower. Flowers are cultivated on a massive scale (mainly in Spain) as it takes 150 000 flowers to produce 1 kg of dry spice. It is not cultivated in southern Africa. Not surprisingly, saffron is very expensive and is often adulterated with (or substituted by) safflower (False saffron) or Turmeric (Indian saffron). Saffron is used as a flavourant and reddish-coloured dye in e.g. cheeses, butter and confectionery. It is an ingredient in the Spanish dish paella and in Indian curry and rice dishes. Saffron has the highest known levels of vitamin B2 of any plant product.


Cuminum cyminum (Cumin)

Family: Apiaceae



Curcuma longa (Turmeric)

Family: Zingiberaceae



Elettaria cardamomum (Cardamom)

Family: Zingiberaceae



Foeniculum vulgare (Fennel)

Family: Apiaceae



Laurus nobilis (Bay leaves)

Family: Lauraceae



Myristica fragrans (Nutmeg and Mace)



Ocimum basilicum (Basil)

Family: Lamiaceae



Origanum majorana (Marjoram)

Family: Lamiaceae



Origanum vulgare (Oregano)

Family: Lamiaceae



Papaver rhoeas (Poppy seeds)

Family: Papaveraceae



Petroselinum crispum (Parsley)

Family: Apiaceae


Pimenta dioica (Allspice)

Family: Myrtaceae



Pimpinella anisum (Anise)

Family: Apiaceae



Piper nigrum (Pepper)

Family: Piperaceae


Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary)

Family: Lamiaceae



Salvia officinalis (Sage)

Family: Lamiaceae



Satureja hortensis (Summer Savory)

Family: Lamiaceae



Satureja montana (Winter Savory)

Family: Lamiaceae



Sesamum indicum (Sesame)

Family: Pedaliaceae



Sinapis alba (White Mustard)

Family: Brassicaceae



Syzygium aromaticum (Cloves)

Family: Myrtaceae



Thymus spp. (Thyme)

Family: Lamiaceae



Trigonella foenum-graecum (Fenugreek)

Family: Fabaceae



Vanilla planifolia (Vanilla)

Family: Orchidaceae



Zingiber officinale (Ginger)

Family: Zingiberaceae




  • van Wyk, B.-E. 2005. Food Plants of the World - Identification, Culinary Uses and Nutritional Value. Briza, Pretoria.