Spotlight on Spice: Tropical Spice Garden

jungle pond with wooden boat and giant lily pads at penang tropical spice garden

I squeezed the orange, plastic chopsticks and lifted the koay teow noodles into my mouth.  On the opposite side of the table, Mark slurped up the last drops of his fresh nutmeg juice and then raised his eyes to my drink.  I wrapped my fingers tightly around the glass.  It was automatic when I heard that sound.

eating beef koay teow soup and drinking fresh nutmeg juice in georgetown world heritage site

“Can I just have a sip?”


“Just a little.”

I shook my head and slid the glass of nutmeg juice closer to me.  I had heard that line before. Of course, I wasn’t the first Southeast Asian in history to hear it.  White guys have been following the Spice Route to this part of the world for 500 years trying to steal nutmeg.

fresh nutmegs and sliced nutmeg fruits being prepared for juice

Nutmeg – like almost everything else on Penang – wasn’t here before 1786.  That’s when Captain Francis Light, in the name of the East India Company, leased the island from the Sultan of Kedah (now a state in northern Malaysia) with some lofty promises he couldn’t keep.  A few minor battles ensued, but Light prevailed and established the island as a free port to convince traders from around the region to help develop what he named “Prince of Wales Island.”

This was the late 18th century, a significant period in human history.  For thousands of years prior, the Spice Route flourished between Europe, the Middle East, India, East Asia, and to the far corner of Southeast Asia to the Moluccas – The Spice Islands.

map of ancient spice route in southeast asia and spice islands

The tiny, remote, Spice Islands (now part of Indonesia) were home to the only source of nutmeg and clove, making these spices worth their weight in gold, and making whoever controlled them, extremely rich.  Through the 17th century and into the 18th century, they were in the hands of the Dutch East India Company.  But as the French and British grew more powerful in the region, they smuggled the nutmeg and clove seedlings to their own colonies, breaking the Dutch monopoly and ending the ancient Spice Route.

where does clove come from?
Clove buds sprouting

As a hilly, tropical island under control of the (British) East India Company, Penang was the perfect site for spice plantations.  Under the direction of Irish botanist, Christopher Smith, thousands of nutmeg and clove seedlings were planted in the Air Itam Valley at the end of the 18th century.  An image difficult to envision now that the valley is the most densely populated area on the island.

beautiful sunrays shining through the trees to the jungle floor at penang tropcial spice garden

In addition to these most sought after spices, Smith was instrumental in bringing numerous other plants and cash crops to the island from around the region like cinnamon, coffee, cacao (cocoa), sugar palm, lempoyang (shampoo ginger), langsat, gandaria fruit, mangosteen, sago palm, pink guava, and much more.  So many during the lucrative plant trade of Smith’s time, that to this day, no one is certain about the origin of a number of the plants on the island.

flowers and spices like torch ginger flower, galangal, ginger, lime, turmeric, lemongrass

Following his work in Penang, Smith spent five years in the Spice Islands researching native plants and collecting seedlings to be shipped to the colonies of the East India Company.  But his commitment to the work he had started in Penang led him back to the island to fulfill his dream of establishing the Company’s preeminent spice gardens.

stone steps over jungle stream at penang tropical spice garden

However, it was not to be.  Competition from Sumatra and other colonies, combined with the difficulty of growing nutmeg and clove trees, led the East India Company to sell their 16 Penang spice plantations in 1805.  Not one to give up, Smith purchased all the plantations with the help of friend, James Scott.  But only a year later, to his vehement protest, Smith was ordered by the Company back to England, leaving his spice gardens to be sold off.

Shortly after his journey home – still distraught from having to abandon his years of work in Penang and the Spice Islands – Smith died under mysterious circumstances, leading some to speculate that he had committed suicide. 

green leaves on a vanilla plant vine and fresh curry leaves on bush
Left: Vanilla bean vine, Right: Curry leaves

Two centuries after Christopher Smith’s death, his legacy lives on in the amazing variety of plants on the island; in the nutmeg juice Mark and I each order to go along with our favorite beef koay teow soup; in the exotic fruits selling along the road in Balik Pulau (on the undeveloped west side of Penang); in our cendol dessert sweetened with palm sugar.

But if Christopher Smith were alive today, he would be even more astonished that from the foundations of his work, Penang now has Southeast Asia’s preeminent spice garden.

jungle stream in early morning at spice gardens

On the northwest corner of the island, on a hilly slope along the Straits of Malacca, Penang’s award winning Tropical Spice Garden features over 500 species of tropical flora, including many of the same spice plants Christopher Smith brought to the island two centuries ago.

spice route trail on tropical island

On a recent visit, we were guided through the gardens by Joseph – a man so passionate about spices, he could be the reincarnation of Smith.  Along the groomed trails of the jungle hillside, he allowed us to smell and taste the leaves from cinnamon and nutmeg trees, as well as clove buds and wild cardamom pods.

dusky leaf monkey sitting in tree eating leaves
A Dusky Leaf Monkey munching on leaves at Tropical Spice Garden

Joseph also explained the role of spices in local remedies and cooking.  In the case of the betel nut - the spice from the Pinang tree of which Penang is named - Malays have traditionally added the calm-inducing spice into dishes to secretly pacify their guests when hosting large gatherings.

what is a betel nut?
Betel Nut spice from the Pinang Tree

At the end of the tour, I continued walking on the path as it wound through the jungle, providing an occasional glimpse of the Andaman Sea.  A sea once busy with Asian, Middle Eastern, and European traders, sailing along the ancient Spice Route through Penang.   Boats that would have ferried Christopher Smith between the islands as he collected plants for his beloved spice gardens. 

While that part of history has passed, the Spice Route is still very much alive in the flowers and trees along the trails of Tropical Spice Garden

beach at sunset in penang malaysia

Source: “Christopher Smith & Penang’s first Botanic Garden” – a talk by Marcus Langdon on October 1, 2011.

Some images provided by Tropical Spice Garden.