12 Herbs And Spices To Grow In The Tropics


When it comes to growing food on the homestead, there is a forgotten hero among the plant world that often goes overlooked: Herbs and Spices.  Growing your own flavoring takes off grid homesteading to another level.

So many of the world’ most coveted flavors come from the tropics.  There is no reason why we shouldn’t be growing some of our own.

Below is a list of some of the top herbs and spices to grow in the tropics that you may not have heard of before.  When it comes to designing your tropical food forest on your off grid homestead, think about planting one of these.

1. Cinammon

When I had my first cinammon harvest, I was hooked.  It was so cool harvesting the bark off the tree and drying out cinnamon sticks of my own.  In fact, I was able to harvest so much of it off of just a small plant, that I never really have to buy cinnamon again!

Cinnamon loves moist tropical jungle climates, but can do ok in pots placed in warm southern exposure in colder climates. They are not heavy feeders, but do like a thick layer of rotting leaf mulch spread across the drip line of the tree.

You can harvest your first cinnamon sticks as soon as 3 years from planting by cutting off some branches or cutting the whole tree down!  It will just resprout.

Cinnamon has found a home in a partially shaded area in my food forest as a smaller understory tree in my food forest.  I’m sure it can find a home in yours as well.

2. Allspice

Allspice enjoys similar growing conditions to cinnamon.  It’s not a real fussy plant in the tropics, growing just about anywhere with enough rainfall.

What separates Allspice from Cinammon is that with Allspice you harvest the ripe seed and fruit whereas Cinammon you harvest the bark.

Allspice is best grown from seed, which can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months to germinate, so be patient.  After 6 months of growth it should be ready to transplant out into the field.  Be sure you plant 2, without it crosspollination will never happen and your trees will never fruit.

Allspice gets a little bigger than cinnamon, especially since we don’t chop it down to harvest, so be sure to give it a little more room to breath in your food forest.

3. Vanilla

If you have ever had fresh Vanilla to use when baking, then you know why you want to have a Vanilla vine of your own growing in the backyard.  It tastes a thousand times better than store bought vanilla.

Vanilla is an orchid that grows as a vine that thrives in Hawai’i, especially Hawai’i Island.  It has been found to grow well in areas with ample rainfall.

Planted by cutting, Vanilla twists and turns it’s way around branches or trellises as it vines it’s way through the garden.  Once established, it grows prolificly. 

The only drawback to Vanilla is that to ensure decent fruit set, you have to hand pollinate in Hawai’i, we don’t have its natural pollinator living here.

Vanilla is a great cash crop and if you find a way to grow it well, it could provide a decent income on your off grid property.  Until then, enjoy it as an added flavoring in some of the best desserts that you will ever taste.

4. Nutmeg

Another true tropical, Nutmeg likes it hot and sunny.  It likes to be grwon in fertile soil that is well draining, but also in a place with ample rainfall.

Both the seed and the outer orange husk of the seed are harvested for the flavoring properties.  The seed is the part we all know as Nutmeg, with the orange rind being Mace.

Another tree that likes to get big, make sure you include this one as a possible overstory tree within your food forest.

5. Curry Leaf

Love Indian Curry?  Why not grow some of your own flavoring add into your own dishes.  Curry Leaf grows really well in the moist tropics.

Best transplanted by stem cutting or you can use fresh curry leaves with petiole or stem and start a plant.  Stick the stem or leaf into some sand and give it a mst of water regularly and within 3 weeks you should have a rooted cutting.

To spice up your dishes, all it takes is a whole leaf or two thrown in with your recipe and you’re taken to the flavors of India.  You can even dry the leaves to use at a later date.

6. Culantro/Vietnamese Cilantro

When I first moved to the tropics, I was on a Cliantro fix.  I just had to have it.  Only problem was, it didn’t want to grow very well for me.  Now I know, there are micro climates where cilantro thrives, but mine was not one of them.

What I did find were two plants, Culantro and Vietnamese Cilantro that, if I were to close my eyes and do a blind taste test, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which was conventional Cilantro and which was its tropical counterpart.

Both these plants grow in similar conditions to cilantro.  They find their home within your veggie and herb garden, growing as a small, 1’-2’ high plant which reseeds readily. 

I regularly harvest leaves for my cooking and the plants just keep on producing more.  If you’re a fan of Cilantro like me, I invite you to grow these plants in your garden.  They don’t take up much space at all.

7. Perennial Basil

I have a basil plant growing in my garden that I planted 4 years ago.  It just keeps on growing.  That’s fine for me, cause I love basil, especially if I don’t have to keep reseeding it!

Perennial Basil grows well from seed or cutting and grows very similar to conventional basil.  The leaves tend to be a little purplish on the underside and the stalks a little more woody, but that’s where the differences end.  

The plant only gets about 1’ – 2’ ft tall and about 2’ in diameter.  One of the best things about this plant is that the bees love it.  More food for them equals more food for me.

Perennial Basil goes well with any Italian dish, as a homemade pesto paired with Mac Nuts growing in your food forest.

8. Oregano

Oregano is another plant that fits in well with Culantro and Basil.  It grows as a low groundcover that can spread out for several feet.  As long as it has some weed free soil, it will spread.

Normally grown in Mediterranean climates, I have found oregano to grow really well for me in the wet tropics.  I like to take a cutting with some roots and just transplant straight into the garden where I want it to grow.

Oregano is another great all around herb that goes with almost any style of cooking.  Enjoy harvesting it straight from your garden to your plate.

9. Tamarind

When you drive to the southern part of Hawai’i Island, there is a bakery with a giant Tamarind tree growing prolificly.  The tree likes the lower, dry elevations out here and it shows.

The edible pulp found in the bean pods is a popular flavor enhancer throughout India.  A little bit sweet, a little bit sour, it is either loved or hated.  It is a great addition to chutneys, so next time you harvest those green mangoes for chutney, think about adding some Tamarind.

Tamarind grows well from seed or by Airlayering.  It takes 6-8 years to fruit by seed, half that time with an airlayer.  The tree can grow pretty big given the right conditions, up to 80’, so make sure you give it room to grow.

10. Kaffir Lime

You may hear this one and think, “Wait, why is a lime tree on a list about herbs and spices?”  Well it’s not the fruit that makes this tree so special, it’s the leaves.

The leaves of the Kaffir lime have a wonderful flavor that tastes great when added to curry or almost any Thai type dish, but would love to find a place in any home cooking really.

Kaffir lime loves to grow in the tropics where the weather is humid and warm but not too rainy in the winter although it grows well for me in rainy East Hawaii.  

It is grown like most other citrus trees, fertile, well draining soil that is slightly acidic is best.  It is a slow grower, I have had my tree for 8 years now and it is still only 6’ high, but maybe that’s because it gets too much rainfall.  

Either way, I like to plant this tree close to the house on a forest edge.  That way I can harvest from it often.

11. Ginger/Galangal/Tumeric

These three plants are not the same, but they do have very similar growth habits.  Each species has distinctly different flavors that complement each other when used in a dish.  They also have very powerful medicinal properties.

Each one of these plants love to be planted in deep, rich fertile soil.  They do not tolerate sun too well and thrive in the shady understory of your food forest.  If grown in the tropics, there is almost nothing that you need to do to help these plants thrive.  They love it here already.

The best time to harvest the roots of these plants is when the foliage have died back, usually 8-10 months after planting.  Set them out in a sunny spot with good airflow to let them dry and you’ll have wonderful flavors to add to your cooking all year long.

12. Cardamom

Here’s another plant that is related to Ginger, Turmeric and Galangal.  Cardamon loves all of the same growing conditions.  It thrives in fertile soil in the shade of your oversory food forest.

What is different though is the part that you harvest for eating, which is the seed instead of the root.  Cardamon puts out a green pulpy fruit with a highly aromatic seed.  It is prized in cooking throught the world, often finding itself in ciders and desserts.

It is easy to grow and does not take up much room.  If you are looking for another spice to add to your home garden, this is a great one because of how little room and how easy it is to grow.

13. Lemongrass

Many of us are familiar with the flavor of lemongrass in asian recipes because if its popular lemony sweet flavor.  It is a powerful flavor enhancer and like most plants with such pungent aromas, packs a medicinal punch as well.

It is very easy to grow in containers or even out in the garden where it does pretty well out competing traditional grass.  I use it as a border around my fruit trees to actually try and help keep the grass out of the area.

It is easy to grow through division and can thrive in almost any soil.  Mine is mostly rock and it’s doing pretty well.

Lemongrass is also known to help repel mosquitos so most people will plant some around the house to keep those little buggahs away.

14. Pepper (Black Peppercorns)

Last but not least, Black Pepper.  One of the most popular spices in the spice cabinet thrives when grown in the tropics.

Growing as a vine in hot humid tropical environments, this plant can grow up to 15’ tall.  Within 3 years the plant will begin to produce fruit which contain the peppercorns.  

You can pick green fruit, but you should wait till it turns red to harvest the black peppercorn that most of us are used to.

After picking, it is best to boil for 10 minutes then left out to dry till it turns brown or black.

Pepper can grow well among an orchard of Avocado, Citrus or Cacoa and is closely related to ‘Awa.  The vine will grow well in the shady understory of your food forest.

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Sean Jennings

Sean has been living simply Off-Grid in Hawai'i for over 18 years. He lives debt free on Hawai'i Island with his family and over 40 chickens. When he's not tinkering around the homestead, he's off exploring the shorelines for fish & surf.

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