This month we are celebrating tropical spice plants in the Tropical Conservatory. Our plant of the month is Elettaria cardamomum, Commonly known as the Green Cardamom.
This is a perennial herb with long stems that grows up to 4 m tall and sometimes even higher. The plant has long leaves that grow densely, and between them inflorescences with white to violet flowers. The fruit is a small pod, which contains the seeds.
The Green Cardamon originated in southern India. The plant’s many qualities were discovered already in ancient times: its seeds are used as a spice – the well-known cardamom. In addition, this is an important medicinal plant in the traditional medicine of most Asian countries. In ancient Indian medicine books the cardamom appears as treatment for spasms, and for the digestive system, as a breath freshener, and even as an aphrodisiac. The Greek physicians Dioscorides and Hippocrates wrote about its therapeutic properties, identifying it as a digestive aid. The seeds are also used to produce essential oils, and in the perfume industry. The dried leaves were occasionally used as a spice, and also to wrap food while being cooked, similarly to Banana leaves.
Cardamom seeds were an important spice along history – the Nabataeans traded in cardamom and brought it along the Incense Route from India to Egypt, and later to Greece and Rome, where it was much coveted. The Romans sought to gain control of the Incense Route, but at the beginning the Nabataeans were too wealthy and powerful, and they failed. As a result the Romans gained control over the nautical routes in the Red Sea, in order to circumvent the Incense Route. During the second century AD the Romans managed to weaken the Nabataeans, and annexed their kingdom as a Roman Province. Thus they managed to gain control of all the trade routes, which resulted in a reduction in the prices of the goods traded – including that of cardamom.
During the Middle Ages, Venice, which established close trade relations with Arab traders, became the main port for importing spices – especially black pepper, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom – from the East to Europe.
Cardamom is one of the most expensive spices: only saffron and vanilla are more expensive.
Cardamom gradually became a popular spice in Europe, mainly in the north. In Finland there are many traditional pastries that are based on cardamom.
Cardamom is grown in many tropical countries around the world today. The largest producer of cardamom in the world today is Guatemala, followed by India and Sri-Lanka.
The scientific name, Elettaria cardamomum, is a combination of two local names of this spice: Elettari is the spice’s name in southern India, and Cardamom is its Greek name.
The Elettaria cardamomum plants in our Tropical Conservatory are still young and not very impressive. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see them. We hope they will keep growing and turn into large, impressive plants.
You are welcome to visit the Tropical Conservatory, to see the Cardamom, Cinnamon and other spice plants!
Author: Yael Orgad, February 2020.