Cardamom – Queen of Spices
Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum, Zingiberaceae) is a robust perennial with oblong, blade-shaped leaves, small white or yellow flowers with violet-mauve veining, and light yellow fruit containing the aromatic red-brown seeds.1 The reed-like herb, which can reach 9-15 feet, is native to Sri Lanka and southern India, but is also grown in Guatemala, Laos, and El Salvador.2 The habitat is mountainous forests. The name cardamom may have originated from the Arabic hehmama, relating to a Sanskrit word for hot and pungent.1
Used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 3000 years, cardamom was mentioned in Vedic medicinal texts as ela or elattari, from which the genus name is derived.3,4 Considered an aphrodisiac in ancient India, cardamom has been an ingredient in love potions throughout various cultures. Powdered seeds are incorporated into incense and fumigation blends such as abir* and used in Hindu ceremonies. It was included in the Tibetan formula Aquilaria A, where the inhaled fumes were said to calm the mind, relieve stress, and promote sleep.
Cardamom features in ancient Sumerian clay tablets, including one of the oldest medical texts written around 3500 BCE.4 Egyptian hieroglyphs dating around 700 BCE note that cardamom was used as a perfume, spice, and in blends for rituals.5 It was included in the Egyptian ointment Metopion (which may have included galbanum, bitter almonds, mastic, myrrh, calamus, honey, wine, seed of balsam, and turpentine resin) and the recipe for Susinon or “oil of lilies.” which among its numerous ingredients included the blue water lily.4 While the herb was included in tea blends in India, Arabians added a few seeds to coffee. Cardamom also features in the tale The Arabian Nights and Shayk Nafzawi’s The Perfume Garden of Sensual Delight.3,4 Nafzawi provides an aphrodisiac formulation which also included cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, cloves, and gillyflowers (possibly clove pinks or carnations) to be applied morning and night. Not surprisingly, cardamom seeds were known as the “grains of paradise” in the Middle East.1 Note: Cardamom should not be confused with the true grains of paradise, Aframomum melegueta, also in the ginger family.
In traditional Greek medicine, Dioscorides (ca. 40-90 CE), Theophrastus (371-287 BCE),** Plutarch (46-119 CE), Galen (129-216 CE), and Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) mention the spice.4 Hippocrates (460-370 BCE) suggested cardamom for coughs, spasms, abdominal pains, sciatica, and nervous disorders.2 Traditional Chinese medicine divides cardamom into three types – wild (sha ren), white (bai dou kou), and black (cao guo).5 It is used to harmonize shen (spirit), regulate qi (chi, energy), and nourish heart-blood.
In medieval Europe, cardamom was known as “the fire of Venus.” 3,4 It was used in recipes for love potions, wines, and long life elixirs.
HerbClip™ Managing Editor
*Other ingredients include cloves, turmeric, and sandalwood.
** Theophrastus wrote a recipe of myrrh wine which included cardamom, cinnamon, cassis, iris, rose, and mint.
1Mojay G. Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit. New York: Henry Holt and Company; 1996.
2Lawless J. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. San Francisco: Conari Press; 2013.
3Lawless J. Aromatherapy and the Mind. Hammersmith, London, UK: Thorsons; 1994.
4Rhind JP. Fragrance and Wellbeing: Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche. London: Singing Dragon; 2014.
5Holmes P. Aromatica – A Clinical Guide to Essential Oil Applications Vol 2: Applications and Profiles. London, UK: Singing Dragon; 2019.