Seeking True Cardamom

Visiting Malekula Island (Vanuatu) gave me this boundary planting idea using false cardamom and crotons

Visiting Malekula Island (Vanuatu) gave me this boundary planting idea using false cardamom and crotons

Can’t find genuine cardamom plants, but want its fresh flavour in your cooking? Grow your own.

It took me two years to realise I had been sold twelve plants of false cardamom (Alpinia nutans) instead of true cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), the source of the kitchen spice. My disappointment was confirmed when they flowerd the following year.

Many of you will be familiar with False cardamom (Alpinia nutans). Landscapers love it since it survives cold and desiccating winds and erratic rainfall. It grows well in frost-free gardens along from Moruya (south coast of NSW) to Cairns. So when I was positive mine were false, I divided the clump up and planted it against the fence. By placing a few crotons in front I recreated the boundary planting I had seen at the village meeting place whilst visiting the Smol Numbas on Malekula Island (Vanuatu).

Old stems can be chopped up for compost making or used as a surface mulch around trees and shrub borders. The flowers are edible and are sometimes added to decorate salads and stir fries, or preserved in sugar to decorate cakes.

If you’re renting, keep your investment in this spice mobile – grow it in a container. A shallow bowl is preferable to a standard pot because gingers are surface rooting. Their roots may rot in the base of a deep pot during cold, wintry conditions.

Use fresh potting or seed raising mix for sowing and growing seedlings. While young, they’re susceptible to various fungal diseases. Don’t expect fungicides to save them. Mulch plants with compost, topping up pots as the potting mix decomposes and the level drops.

You can use the leaves of false cardamom for flavouring food and its flowers are edible. But, in my opinion, the ground seed and pods taste disgusting and are no substitute for true cardamom spice. False cardamom is tough, drought tolerant and chopped stems make good mulch and compost.

If you want the real deal, buy whole, organic cardamom pods from a health food store. Cut the pods in half (use a sharp knife). Sow the seeds in fresh potting mix, just burying them. Place in a warm, sheltered spot, like a windowsill. Keep the mix evenly damp.

Pot up seedlings individually into tubes or small pots. Feed with seaweed, keeping plants sheltered and exposed to morning sunshine. True cardamom is a tropical plant, best grown in a frost-free, coastal climate. False cardamom grows better inland, and once stablished clumps will cope with occasional frosts to -3C.

Whichever you grow, for best results provide compost rich soil, an a sheltered spot with dappled shade all day, or full morning sunshine. Mulch these woodland perennials with sugarcane, dried lawn clippings, mushroom compost, or your own garden compost.

My one year old seedlings are starting to sucker, so I’ve potted them up from tubes into 100mm pots.

The young, aromatic leaves of both kinds of cardamom may be wrapped around fish or chicken and baked or steamed to add flavour. I enjoy baking fish with cardamom leaf with added lime juice or finger lime pulp, whole chillies or pepper.

I have no idea it might take to coax my true cardamom to flowering stage, but I’d like to make spice. Then it’ll be perfect for flavouring ginger cake, smoothies and curries.


Jerry Coleby-Williams
17th February 2013