Spice acreage in Saskatchewan continues to increase, as research scientists at the Crop Development Centre (CDC), at the University of Saskatchewan continue to help growers improve their crops.
"Spices such as coriander, caraway, dill, anise and fenugreek are often grown from non-pedigreed seed of undetermined origin and unknown performance because brokers and producers bring in seeds from all over the world. They believe the seed is adapted for Saskatchewan conditions, contract production, and then wonder why some fields have disappointing results," Dr. Al Slinkard, professor emeritus in CDC's spice research program says.
"So out objectives are to identify and demonstrate successful agronomic practices to Saskatchewan producers, and to develop early maturing lines for the province's relatively short growing season. Equally important is the development of high-yielding, high-quality spice crops with significant levels of essential oils."
Slinkard noted as an example, different sizes of coriander seed were initially imported into Saskatchewan. This led to a mixing of seed, which resulted in size variability and, because small-seeded coriander is higher in essential oils than large-seeded coriander, quality problems.
CDC researchers, however, have developed two new pedigreed varieties: medium-large seeded CDC Major, and the small-seeded CDC Minor. Limited supplies of these two varieties are now available from several Saskatchewan pedigreed seed growers.
"We are also increasing another line of coriander with a higher percentage of essential oils," he said. "We are now looking for a market, and, by next fall, will know whether the line is economically viable or not."
Agronomic work on coriander and other members of the carrot family, including dill, anise and caraway have also been carried out, Slinkard pointed out. He said these species characteristically have immature embryos at harvest and need water uptake for completion of maturation before they germinate. This suggests late fall or early spring seeding.
"And, until the fall of 2000, we had good success with late-fall seeding of coriander. Many trials were conducted over several years and in various locations, with 100 per cent survival," he said. "We were convinced it was a realistic commercial practice. But the fall of 2000 was too dry, and germination was poor this spring."
Slinkard said that CDC trials have shown that late-fall seeding of dill was only partially successful, so early-spring planting is now recommended. A new dill variety adapted for Saskatchewan conditions will be released to select pedigreed seed growers in the spring of 2002. He estimated that 6,000 to 8,000 acres were planted to dill in 2000, an increase from the 1999 level.
CDC has also developed a new variety of fenugreek, which is an exclusive release: CDC Quattro. In Alberta, Slinkard said the research emphasis is on fenugreek as a forage, but Saskatchewan researchers are concentrating on its use as a spice. As a result, they are currently working on a new variety that is less bitter and is aimed at the soluble-fibre market. Slinkard said this variety should be ready for release in 2003 at the earliest.
Studies on caraway have focussed on the annual variety, which matures very late and has an essential oil content about two-thirds that of the biennial variety, he said. Development of a variety with a higher essential oil content continues, But Slinkard said it will be 3 or 4 years before pedigreed seed will be available.
About 12,000 to 15,000 acres were seeded to biennial caraway this year, but Slinkard said he has stopped work on this type because it will take at least 10 years to develop pedigreed seed for Saskatchewan conditions.
Another late maturing spice is anise. Spring seeding has proven to be most successful, mostly along the clay banks of the South Saskatchewan river where it is warmer and drier. CDC's trial plots, however, were poor this year.
Slinkard said some work is being carried out on cumin, mostly to develop a variety with more resistance to its greatest problem, disease. At this point, however, the research required is being weighed against the market potential.