Cardamom, the seed of a tropical perennial in the ginger family, is one of the oldest spices in the world. Nearly 2,000 years ago, cardamom was considered the “queen of spices” and was sold along the trade routes of the Middle East and Europe. Native to humid forests of South India, the plant bears long, lance-shaped leaves and clusters of white flowers with purple-striped lips. Its fruits, or seedpods, are pale green and contain dark brown, highly aromatic seeds. The fragrance of the seeds is similar to that of eucalyptus, and it dissipates when the seeds are ground. In ancient Egypt, cardamom was used to make perfume.
Common Names: Cardamom, Green Cardamom, True Cardamom
Description: Tropical perennial with stems 4 to 8 feet tall; dark green, lance-shaped leaves up to 1 foot long; small white flowers on trailing racemes; ribbed, light tan seedpods; thick rhizome
Hardiness: To Zone 10
Parts Used: Seeds and leaves
Range/Habitat: Native to India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia; rainforests
Cardamom is widely used in both Scandinavian and East Indian cooking. It is one of the primary flavorings of the popular herbal beverage known as chai. Use cardamom seed to add a warm, spicy flavor to baked goods, curries, bean dishes, marinades, and fruit dishes. One medium-size pod contains 10 to 12 seeds, which make about 1⁄8 teaspoon of the ground spice. Use cardamom leaves as a flavorful wrap for fish, rice, or vegetables, or mince them and add them to curry dishes.
Cardamom contains an essential oil (up to 4 to 8 percent of the seed by weight) that supports the herb’s traditional use as a digestive tonic. The herb “warms” and stimulates digestion, and it may relieve intestinal spasms and gas and ease stomach pain. A study in laboratory animals showed that compounds in cardamom helped inhibit stomach ulcers. Cardamom has a pleasant flavor and is often used in herb blends not only to ease digestion but also to mask the flavor of less-pleasant herbs, such as bitter gentian (Gentiana lutea). Cardamom can also help sweeten breath, especially after eating garlic. The herb has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine as a diuretic, expectorant, carminative, and energy booster. Some cultures consider it an aphrodisiac.
Add the seeds to potpourris and sachets for a lovely spicy scent. The highly fragrant essential oil can be added to soaps, perfumes, bathwater, and body-care products.
How to grow it
Cardamom grows in tropical areas with rich, moist, well-drained soil and partial shade. In temperate regions, cardamom can be grown in a heated greenhouse or a very warm, humid location indoors. Although it will rarely flower or fruit indoors, you can still enjoy its handsome (and edible) leaves. Mist it daily and feed it with diluted fish emulsion during spring and summer. If seedpods do form, harvest them just before they open in fall.