Cardamom is a renowned spice belonging to the botanical family Zingiberaceae, the same family as the more famous ginger. There are several plant species identified as cardamom, with the most famous being Elettaria cardamomum, from which green cardamom seeds can be obtained. This species is native to the East, particularly Iran and the Indies, but it was already known in Europe during the time of the Greeks and Romans. Another significant species is Elettaria repens, also known as Ceylon cardamom, which identifies its precise origin. Regardless of the type, it is a precious and sought-after aromatic spice that forms the basis of many oriental cuisine recipes. Moreover, it is a spice with beneficial properties for the body.
In our country, it is a challenging plant to cultivate, although not impossible. In this article, we will understand how to do it, and we will also analyze the characteristics of the plant and explore its properties and uses.
The Cardamom Plant
Cardamom is a perennial plant that grows from a rhizomatous and creeping root system in the ground, with a woody and fleshy consistency. From the rhizome, the plant produces long, erect, sterile stems, reaching heights of up to 5 meters, very similar to a typical cane. Near the long canes, the flowering branches, which will produce the spice (the fruits), emerge. These branches are much smaller in size. Cardamom leaves come in two types. We have the sheath that completely wraps around the erect stems, so it is very long, even if entirely rolled up. Then there are the secondary leaves, oblong-lanceolate in shape, which can be as long as 1 meter, with an acuminated apex and wavy margins. These leaves descend along the long stems.
Cardamom flowers are grouped in a long, flexuous, and almost always drooping panicle, carried, as mentioned, by a short branch that emerges from the rhizome. The individual small flowers are very aesthetically pleasing. They are carried by a short peduncle, the calyx is cylindrical and bilobed. The corolla also has a cylindrical tube and is divided into four lobes, three of which are equal and lanceolate, and the fourth, wider one, called the labello, is blue with yellow hues.
Fruits and Cardamom Seeds
The fruits and seeds of the plant are the “drug,” which is the actual spice, cardamom. The fruit is an ovoid-elongated capsule, green-grayish in color, with a triangular section, with the lateral faces lined with very fine grooves. It is harvested just before ripening so that it does not open when dried. By cutting the fruit open, we observe three compartments, each containing 5-6 brown seeds with a strong aromatic odor and flavor. Therefore, the cardamom fruits that are purchased are opened as needed, and the seeds are used.
How to Cultivate the Cardamom Plant
The major cardamom cultivations are found in India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. These are countries with a tropical climate, mild and humid in winter, and hot and humid in summer. These conditions do not exist in our country, where winters are temperate to mild. The cardamom plant cannot withstand temperatures below 10°C, with the ideal vegetative range around 20°C. Therefore, in a domestic setting, the only possibility is to cultivate it in pots, sheltering the plants indoors during winter. Unfortunately, cardamom plants are very bulky and require a lot of space to grow. For this reason, they require enormous pots that are difficult to move. In our opinion, the only successful way to cultivate cardamom in Italy is to do so in a heated greenhouse (protected cultivation) with controlled temperatures and humidity, which requires significant financial investment. Cardamom plants can be found for sale at nurseries that specialize in exotic fruits. However, it is easy to obtain clones from the plant by dividing the underground rhizome, an operation that is best done in spring or autumn. The underground rhizome readily resumes vegetative growth. Cardamom prefers acidic pH soil, well-drained, with a loose consistency, preferably loamy-sandy.
In nature, the cardamom plant lives in bright but semi-shaded locations. Exposure to full sun, combined with high temperatures, is poorly tolerated. In a greenhouse, it is easy to filter light and achieve the right shading.
Irrigation, especially in protected cultivation, should be regular. The plant prefers the soil to always be moist, although one should never overdo it to avoid water stagnation and root rot.
Cardamom plants have significant growth and do not allow the growth of weeds. Therefore, weeding operations are limited to the initial stages of life.
Uses of Cardamom
The secrets of cardamom are held in its seeds, which are rich in precious essential oil. This spice, with its characteristic and refined aroma, is one of the most widely used and expensive spices in oriental countries and the West. The essential oil gives cardamom a warm and pungent aroma, making it a highly appreciated ingredient in the preparation of liqueurs, beverages, sweets, and perfumes. It is perfect for flavoring strong-flavored meat and fish dishes in the kitchen. In Arab countries, it is used to flavor coffee in traditional rituals. The pharmaceutical sector uses cardamom for its high covering power of bitter, unpleasant, or overly persistent odors and flavors, such as B-group vitamins, liver extracts, and antibiotics.
Properties of Cardamom
Cardamom also has beneficial properties as an appetite stimulant, excellent digestive, and carminative. To harness these benefits, the oriental folk tradition suggests chewing the whole fruit in case of indigestion and intestinal colic. In Italy, the spice is mainly used in the preparation of liqueurs and bitters, and it can be found in specialized stores, both whole (capsules containing the seeds) and in powder.