When Debs over at Herbaholics Herbarium announced the theme for this months blog party I didn’t know how I’d ever choose what to write about. The world of spices has always captivated people’s imagination and, in times gone by, some were worth more than gold. Here in Western Europe, where we have few local spices but can so benefit from their warming actions, the Spice Trade has been big business since Ancient times. Spices are the only non-local plant medicines I would never want to manage without, especially at this time of year when all I want is to settle down by the fire with a book, a cat and a cup of fresh ginger tea with a splash of elderberry syrup. Initially I wasn’t sure whether to take a more general look at spices and their uses as medicine and share some of my favourite recipes or whether to focus on one in particular and, if so, which one. My decision boiled down to black pepper or cardamom, both of which I use regularly in food, medicine and aromatherapy. In the end cardamom won the day, though don’t be surprised if a black pepper post pops up here too sometime over the colder months!
I have already written about cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and it’s natural affinity with rose in this post and in my chocolate recipe here. They both resonate with the heart and are famed for their aphrodisiac properties. Even though many spices are considered aphrodisiacs, for me, cardamom is the true spice of love.This is because it has a very balanced effect, being slightly stimulating- as are all spices to some extent- but also calming and centring. In Ayurvedic medicine cardamom has been used to enhance meditation for this very reason- whilst helping to pacify the mind it also aids in restoring focus and preventing you from dropping off to sleep on your meditation cushion! By increasing vitality, calming the spirits and improving concentration it is a great tonic for our busy 21st Century minds. In Asia it’s also been used in the treatment of depression.
Though it is native to India and South East Asia, Guatamala and Mexico are now also large exporters, though the Indian cardamom is said to be highest in quality. Part of the ginger family, Zingerberaceae, it is a perennial herb with large leaves and fleshy underground rhizomes. The part we use medicinally is the pale green seed pods containing the small dark seeds which are rich in volatile oils.
Cardamom is best known in herbal medicine as a digestive remedy, especially when the problems are caused, or made worse by nervous tension. It has proved useful particularly for gas, bloating and nausea and can help calm vomiting. It is helpful to chew or drink as a tea after a heavy or rich meal or when one has the sense of having overeaten. The Ancient Egyptians are said to have used it in this way to sweeten their breath. It has also been found useful for headaches which are caused by indigestion. It is a helpful remedy for stimulating the appetite and some have used it with success in cases of anorexia. It’s ability to stimulate digestive secretions combined with its mood lifting properties would certainly make it a remedy worthy of consideration in such cases. As one of the safest digestives it is also suitable for children.
In my experience, Cardamom is a wonderful medicine for those constitutions who have a tendency to nervousness, over-thinking, anxiety and poor digestion. They can be prone to muscle contractions, stiffness, fatigue, low libido and poor concentration. This makes it beneficial for the Ayurvedic Vata types, or in Western energetic terms, those with a constricted tissue state. This is the person who never seems quite relaxed, who feels the cold and tends to worry, both of which may result in a stiff or contracted body posture.
In Ayurvedic medicine, cardamom is used as a remedy for clearing phlegm from the GI tract and the respiratory system. It helps drain damp and mucus from nose and sinuses and is warming and drying but not excessively so, therefore it is considered tridoshic, meaning it can be used with all constitutions, though in my small experience it’s true affinity is for those with a Vata constitution. To find out more about the Ayurvedic constitutions, or doshas, and take a quiz to help you determine which one you are, have a look at this website here. Of course you really need to see a practitioner to get a true assessment!
Cardamom is also thought helpful for genito-urinary complaints. Anne McIntyre writes that it can help strengthen a weak bladder and according to some writers, it can help ease symptoms of PMT, though I have no expeience of using it in this way.
Here are some of my favourite Cardamon teas blends. Always crush the pods a little in a mortar and pestle to release the volatile oil containing seeds:
- Cardamom and Rose – (of course.) To lift the mood, pacify the mind and instil feelings of love and wellbeing.
- Cardamom, Chamomile and Peppermint – As the perfect after dinner beverage to settle the stomach, improve digestion and relieve gas.
- Cardamom, Orange Peel and Elderberry – Make as a decoction for a warming and immune supporting winter tea.
- Cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, black pepper and rooibos – A delicious chai enjoyed with a little almond milk and honey.
Cardamom can also be taken in tincture form and a little is a great addition to many formulas where digestion is a factor. It’s also lovely infused in honey or in a mixed spice vinegar or you can make a delicious electuary with ground cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, a little nutmeg and a little clove mixed with honey.
Cardamom as an essential oil is warming, invigorating, antiseptic, anti-spasmodic and aphrodisiac. It can be used in blends to massage the stomach to improve digestion or to ease muscle fatigue and it can be smelt straight from the bottle to alleviate nausea.
I love a few drops, mixed with a tablespoon of base oil, and added to the bath. Some of my favourite blends include – you guessed it – cardamom and rose; cardamom, black pepper and juniper; and cardamom, chamomile and mandarin, a blend which is also suitable for children in very small amounts.
Cardamom is of course also wonderful in foods. I use it to flavour rice and in curries and I also buy the ground cardamom to flavour cookies, smoothies, chocolates and cakes. Delicious.
I hope you get chance to enjoy this delightful, gentle and warming spice this autumn.
The Complete Herbal Tutor – Anne McIntyre
The Yoga of Herbs – Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Vasant Lad
Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine – Thomas Bartram
The Directory of Essential Oils – Wanda Sellar
Picture of botanical illustration of cardamom curtesy of wikipedia.com.