What’s the difference between herbs and spices? Both come from plants, but herbs are the fresh part of the plant while spices are from the root or stalk, seed, or fruit of the plant and are almost always dried not fresh.

I think a lot of people have had a go at growing herbs – parsley, chives, cilantro, and basil are good examples. But spices? Anyone who likes to cook will testify that spices are expensive and hard to find sometimes – I am not a great fan of cooking, but even I have traipsed around several stores looking for something special that a particular recipe called for.

Here in Portugal, we have plenty of sunshine to grow spices - just add a little soil and water, then a little love and a lot of patience while you wait for the plants to go to seed! They add a flavour to your foods and alongside herbs, are good for you too, as they are a rich source of antioxidants.

Fennel is often grown for the bulbous stem, which tastes like liquorice. Allowing the flowers to go to seed produces a delicious seed for blending with spice rubs for meat and poultry, and some will eat them on their own to aid digestion.

Credits: envato elements; Author: Photology75;

Ginger and Tumeric are related plants that grow from rhizomes and look the same, but turmeric might need to be purchased from a specialist store. Both should be plump and have several bumpy nodes on them. If the rhizomes are large, cut them apart so that each chunk has a few nodes on it. Plant in part shade is best, with both needing regular and consistent moisture to thrive. Both are slow-growing, they can take 8 to 10 months before the plants may be dug out for harvest.

Credits: envato elements;

Mustard is a staple condiment, but this one can’t actually take a lot of heat, and will ‘bolt’ if allowed, which won’t produce good seeds. Small flowers precede seed pods which appear in late summer or early autumn. Allow them to turn brown on the plant before picking.

Credits: envato elements; Author: seyfutdinovaolga;

Cumin seeds can be ground and used in Mexican cooking, curry powder or garam masala mixes, or in Vietnamese or Thai cooking. This heat-loving plant needs a growing season of about 3 to 4 months to go to seed. Regular moisture is key for seed production. Once the flowers have finished blooming, the plant will form brown seeds, which can be harvested by hand in autumn.

Credits: envato elements; Author: Olga_Kochina;

Fenugreek is a highly scented spice and is actually a legume. Easy to grow in containers or in-ground, plants will reach approximately 60cm tall, and the seedpods should be ready for harvest in early autumn hand. The seeds taste a bit like maple and are commonly used in tea, or in curries and pickles.

Credits: envato elements; Author: rezkrr;

Saffron comes from the blue flowers of Crocus sativus, and it’s said that it is possible to grow your own saffron but is likely to be a real challenge as they need the right environment, the right mixture of soil, and optimum care. This is the most expensive spice in the world because it requires a lot of work to grow, and there are only three deep red tendrils, the stigma, available on each flower. They must be carefully handpicked, and as many as 500 stigmas make up a single gram of saffron, so a vast growing area would be needed for even a teaspoonful

Bringing plants to seed in order to use them as spices takes patience and a little dedication, but you can save money by growing your own, and knowing you did it yourself will make the delicious fresh flavours something that can’t be beaten in the kitchen!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan