How to Grow Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) maturing for harvest

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Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) belongs to the ginger (Zingiberaceae) family. Grown for its glossy textured foliage and edible use, cardamom is a pungent, aromatic, herbaceous perennial. The genus name comes from elettari, the vernacular name for this plant in Malabar, India. Plants of the Elettaria genus are rhizomatous evergreens, which have erect stems with two ranks of leaves that are linear to lance-shaped. Specifically, "cardamom" comes from the Latinization of the Greek word kardamomom.

Cardamom has thick knobby rhizomes, which create upright shoots that bear long, narrow, dark green leaves. Outdoors in tropical climates, cardamom can grow on cane-like stems from 6 to 15 feet tall. Leafy shoots have linear-lanceolate leaves, each shaped like a sword and measuring about 24 inches long. In late spring or summer, leafless flowering stems spread from the base and produce white to yellowish-white flowers, reminiscent of orchids, with lilac-purple veins and pink or yellow margins. Depending on the variety, the hairless stems are either horizontal, upright, or somewhere in between. While the stems are not aromatic, these 1 to 2 inch-long blooms give way to small, aromatic, pale yellowish-green fruit pods. Each oblong, thin-walled, smooth-skinned pod is about 3/4 of an inch long and contains 15-20 aromatic black to reddish-brown seeds. The pods and the seeds inside make up the beloved spice also known as "cardamom" used in many dishes and drinks.

Botanical Name Elettaria cardamomum
Common Name  Cardamom, Cardamon, Cardamum, Green Cardamom, True Cardamom
Plant Type  Herbaceous, evergreen, rhizomatous perennial 
Mature Size 6 - 15 ft. tall, 4 - 10 ft. wide outdoors, 2 - 4 ft. tall indoors
Sun Exposure  Part to full shade
Soil Type  Loam
Soil pH  5.1 - 5.5 (strongly acidic), 6.1 - 6.5 (mildly acidic)
Bloom Time  April to May 
Flower Color  White or yellowish
Hardiness Zones  10-12, USDA
Native Area  Asia (India, Burma and Sri Lanka)

Cardamom Plant Care

Native to the tropical areas of India, Burma and Sri Lanka, Cardamom is often found growing in the tropical monsoon forests of the Western Ghat Mountains in the Malabar region of southwest India, which receives about 150 inches of rain per year. Cardamom has also been cultivated in other tropical areas around the world, naturalizing in Tanzania, Vietnam, and Central America (Costa Rica and Guatemala). To give the cardamom plant similar conditions, plant it in an edible garden with other shade-tolerant herbs, greens, or vegetables, or in a rain garden where it will tolerate wet soil. Hardy in USDA Zones 10 through 12, this herbaceous perennial is also good for growing in containers.

Light

Give cardamom part shade to full shade. Avoid planting in direct sun. Instead, let it thrive under the shade of tall trees in hot, humid, and consistently moist conditions akin to its native rainforests.

Soil

Grow in fertile, loam-based potting compost. If planting in bright unfiltered light with high humidity, add leaf mould or granulated bark to the soil. Because cardamom needs tropical conditions to produce the optimal amount of fruit, it can thrive especially well under glass.

Water

Mist frequently with rainwater; water regularly but do not overwater. Cardamom does best in sites where conditions are stable year-round, without much change to the temperature, rain volume, soil moisture, or natural light exposure.

Temperature and Humidity

Flowers and fruits will only grow in tropical conditions, so plant where daily temperatures rarely go below 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant growth will suffer most dramatically if temperatures reach below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In semi-tropical or temperate climates, grow cardamom indoors in a heated greenhouse or in a warm shady humid place such as a hot, steamy bathroom. While flowers and fruit will rarely grow indoors, cardamom can make a very attractive houseplant. Set the pot on a big saucer of consistently moist pebbles. The houseplant will grow much smaller than it does outdoors, to a humble 2 to 4 feet tall.

Harvesting

The way to harvest this plant for what you need to create the Cardamom spice is to hand-pick each seed pod or fruit. It can be a lot of work, but if you are especially fond of the spice, it can be well worth the effort.

Harvest when the seed pod is beginning to split. That's how you know that they're ripe and ready to be harvested. Additionally, the seed pod should pull away easily from the plant when you give a tug.

Uses

According to Missouri Botanical Garden and other sources, Cardamom is the third most expensive spice by weight, just behind saffron and vanilla. Cardamom seeds, whole or ground, are often used in Indian and Asian cuisines. There is a long history of trade and consumption, fruits having been traded in India for more than 1000 years. In the early 1900s, German coffee planter Oscar Majus Kloeffer introduced cardamom to Guatemala. Until about 1980, India was the largest producer and exporter of cardamom until Guatemala became #1.

While cardamom is used around the globe, some of the main consumers are in Middle Eastern countries where the spice is often added to tea and coffee and in Scandinavia countries where it is often added as flavoring to baked goods. As the primary ingredient to curry powder, Cardamom can be used to flavor rice, meat, vegetables, liquors, and ice cream. Guatemala and Mexico now use it to flavor chewing gum. It is also used to treat stomach/urinary tract problems, asthma, bronchitis, heart problems, indigestion, nausea, sore throats, depression, skin conditions, and bad breath. Outside of culinary and healing use, cardamom can also be included in cosmetics and perfumery.

Pruning

To prune the cardamom plant, remove flowered stems in spring.

Propagation

Propagate by dividing the rootball/rhizome or by seed. Let seed pods dry on the plant, then break them open to collect the seeds. Since the seeds do not store well or for very long, sow them as soon as possible.

Common Pests and Diseases

While the cardamom plant is generally free from pests and disease, it may be affected by thrips or by a virus. Keep an eye out for these issues, but most of all, enjoy experimenting with this unique plant and adding a bit of spice to your herb garden.