Plant 159

Elettaria cardamomum (L.) Maton (Zingiberaceae)



Known as the 'queen of spices', the green pods of Elettaria cardamomum have been traded for over one thousand years. Sought for its unique and unmistakable warm flavour, this spice has been used as a ceremonial, medicinal and culinary plant for many centuries. Arab traders first introduced cardamom to the west, and the Greeks and Romans used it for perfume, medicine and flavouring. It was highly prized by the ancient Egyptians and was introduced to Scandinavia by the Vikings. Cardamom was once shipped on the spice routes and was one of the most expensive spices traded. There are two main types of cardamom spice traded and used, both from genera in the ginger family. These are true or green cardamom from Elettaria cardamomum, and black cardamom from the genus Amomum.

Elettaria cardamomum is from Sri Lanka and the tropical rainforests of the Western Ghats along the Malabar Coast of southern India. This hilly region, known as the Cardamom Hills, remains a centre of commercial cultivation although it is also grown on a large scale in Guatemala and Tanzania.

Elettaria cardamomum is an herbaceous perennial forming clumps several metres tall, the sword-shaped leaves are up to 60 cm long and arranged alternately up the erect pseudostems. The flowers are produced year round and appear on thin stems trailing along the ground. After successful pollination by insects and bees, three-angled fruits or pods form, packed with the highly aromatic seeds.

Harvesting takes place by hand before the pods are ripe so that they do not split and the valuable seed lost. Because harvesting has to be done by hand, cardamom is the third most valuable spice after saffron and vanilla.

The pods and the seeds are used as flavourings for savoury and sweet dishes. Either added whole or crushed, the seeds give the better flavour; if cooked for too long the pods can add a bitter flavour to food. The seed oil has antibacterial properties and is used to preserve meats.

Scandinavia is one of the world's largest consumers of the spice, using it to flavour foods such as gingerbread, pickles and beverages. Cardamom is mixed with ground coffee beans giving the popular Arabic drink gahwa its distinctive flavour.

Cardamom is used for its anti-inflammatory properties, particularly in the treatment of gastro-intestinal disorders. Extracts are used to treat skin conditions and also sore throats. Conversely, the seed is often added to tobacco.

Further reading

Davidson A 2002. The Penguin companion to food. Penguin Books.

Lyle S 2009. Vegetables herbs & spices. Frances Lincoln Ltd.

Van Wyk B 2005. Food plants of the world. Timber Press.

Kate Pritchard