Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum, Zingiberaceae) is a reed-like perennial with long, knife-shaped leaves that can grow to 13 feet in height.1 The herb produces small yellow, purple-tipped flowers, eventually becoming red-brown, oblong seeds. Native to India and other tropical areas of Asia, it has also been cultivated in Guatemala and El Salvador. Cardamom has been used as a culinary spice worldwide to provide a sweet and pungent flavoring to various dishes, sauces, and drinks. Ancient Sumerian clay tablets from 3500 BCE, the oldest medical text in existence, mention cardamom, and it may have been distilled in clay distillation vessels by asu, the female herbal practitioners of ancient Sumeria.2
Ancient Egyptians employed cardamom in their rites and perfumes. Metopion, an Egyptian ointment that included galbanum (Ferula gummosa, Apiacea), myrrh (Commiphora myrrha, Burseraceae), honey, wine, calamus (sweet flag; Acorus calamus, Acoraceae), and turpentine resin (Pinus spp., Pinaceae), was thought to produce sweat and heat, “open the vessels”, treat cut muscles and sinew, and expel ulcers.3 Dioscordes wrote that the best Metopion smelled more of cardamom and myrrh than galbanum. In Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, cardamom has been prescribed for over 3,000 years for fever, digestion, pulmonary disease, and urinary issues.1
Brought to Europe by the Greeks in the 4th century BCE, the Greek physician Hippocrates suggested cardamom for coughs, spasms, nervous disorders, urine retention, sciatica, and abdominal pain. It was also utilized against the bite of venomous insects. In Ayurveda, it is considered heating, pungent, and sweet, affecting the respiratory, circulatory, nervous, and digestive systems.4 Frawley and Lad tout the seed for awakening the spleen, kindling digestive fire (agni), stimulating the heart and mind, and bringing joy and clarity. Due to its balancing quality, cardamom is said to soothe and open energy flow/life force (prana) in the body. Safe for children, it is particularly beneficial for nervous tummy upsets.
Cardamom has been plied as an aphrodisiac in many cultures.2 In the Medieval period, it came to be known as the “fire of Venus” and was often found in love potions.
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1Lawless J. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press; 2013.
2Rhind JP. Fragrance and Wellbeing – Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche. London, UK: Singing Dragon; 2014.
3Ead HA. Perfumes in Ancient Egypt. Alchemy website. https://www.alchemywebsite.com/islam24.html. Accessed February 22, 2021.
4Frawley D, Lad V. The Yoga of Herbs. Twin Lakes, Wisconsin: Lotus Press; 1986.