A member of the parsley family, this biennial is native to Asia Minor but now grows widely throughout the world. Caraway seed (which technically is a fruit) has been used medicinally and in cooking since at least 3500 BCE. This herb is one of the few whose primary medicinal use (as a digestive aid) has remained the same throughout history.
English physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) mentions that it is one of the most celebrated carminatives (gas-relieving remedies), and herbalist John Gerard (1545–1611) suggests that it be used as part of a mixture of herbs to treat “dropsie,” or edema of the soft tissue, such as occurs with congestive heart failure.
Common Name: Caraway
Description: Hollow, grooved stems, up to 2 feet tall, topped with white or pink flower umbels; finely cut leaves, 6 to 10 inches long; oblong seeds with distinct, pale ridges
Hardiness: Annual or biennial; hardy to Zone 3
Parts Used: Leaves, seeds, and roots
Range/Habitat: Native to Asia Minor, widely naturalized in North America and Europe
Every part of the caraway plant is edible. Caraway seeds are popular in the cuisines of Germany, Austria, and Hungary, where they are used to flavor cheeses, breads (especially rye), meats, stews, vegetables, sauerkraut, and pickling brines. The minced fresh leaves, which have a mild flavor similar to the seeds, can be added to salads, soups, and casseroles. Even the root can be used, steamed, pureed, or chopped, and added to winter stews. Caraway seed can become bitter if cooked for too long; add it only during the last few minutes of cooking.
The volatile oil of caraway smells sweet and peppery; it contains the compounds carvol and carvene, which account for its ability to soothe your digestive tract and help expel intestinal gas. The herb has a long history of use for the treatment of flatulence and colic in babies. Caraway also has antispasmodic properties and may be useful in the treatment of menstrual cramps and diarrhea. The aroma of the oil is said to be calming and soothing.
Caution: Pregnant or nursing women should avoid medicinal doses of caraway, though small amounts used in cooking are not harmful. If administering the herb to colicky infants, use a diluted infusion.
How to grow it
Caraway is easy to grow in fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. Plant the seed directly in your garden in spring or early fall; caraway does not transplant well. Gather the ripe seed heads just as they turn brown. Snip entire stems and hang them upside down over a paper-lined tray to finish drying. After a few weeks, when the seeds are completely dry, store them in an airtight container for future use. Propagate new plants from some of the collected seeds.