By Maryann Readal
Caraway seed, Carum carvi, has been used in many countries of the world as a spice and as a medicine for a very long time.
The caraway plant can be either biennial or annual. It is native to western Asia, northern Europe, and north Africa. It grows as an annual in cooler climates, and in warmer regions it is planted in the fall and produces flowers and fruit the following year. Caraway does not tolerate hot, humid weather well. The flowers attract beneficial bees and wasps to the garden, and the crescent shaped “seeds” are actually considered to be fruits. The herb is in the Apiaceae family and the umbel-shaped, white-to-pink flowers resemble those of dill, parsley, celery, and other members of the family. It produces a long taproot that can be eaten as a vegetable. Because of the taproot, however, it does not transplant easily, so caraway is best grown from seed, and will reseed in the garden.
References to caraway are found in the Ebers Papyrus (1500 BCE) and in the writings of the Greek physician, Dioscorides (50-70 CE). Some trace its use back to the Stone Age because fossilized seeds have been found around lake dwellings from that period. The Romans used caraway and spread its use to other parts of their realm. It has been cultivated in Europe since the Middle Ages.
There are some traditional legends surrounding caraway. It was once placed under the bed of “troubled children” as protection from witches. Perhaps these “troubled children” actually suffered from colic, which caraway was later used to treat. It was also used as a love potion due to a belief that it kept a lover from straying. For that reason, it was also used as food for chickens and birds to ensure that they would not fly away (Ravindran, 2017). In the language of flowers, caraway symbolizes faithfulness. In Poland, it was believed that the seeds had the highest healing powers if collected on June 24th, the feast of St. John the Baptist. Bags containing caraway seeds along with anise, fennel, and coriander seeds were worn around the neck because of a belief in their magical properties and their ability to expel gas (Knab, 2020).
Historically, caraway has been used to treat gastrointestinal problems. Recent studies support some of the folk uses of this herb. These uses include reducing indigestion, aiding in weight loss, reducing blood sugar levels, and reducing inflammation (WebMD, 2020). The essential oil of the herb can interact with prescription drugs, so it is recommended that one check with a healthcare provider before using caraway as a treatment.
The culinary use of caraway is well known. Caraway is used to make the north African chile sauce, harissa. It is also used in the traditional British seed cake that is enjoyed with tea (Marchetti, 2013). Its anise-like flavor is very popular in German and Slavic cuisines. The seed is used to flavor breads such as Jewish rye bread, sausages, cabbage, and fruit and vegetable dishes as well as cheeses such as Havarti. The leaves are added to soups and salads. The seeds are also used to make alcoholic drinks such as aquavit, kϋmmel, and vodka. The seeds can be sugar coated and used as a breath freshener or a digestive aid. The essential oil is used in perfumes, ice cream, candy, soft drinks, and to flavor children’s medicine (Bown, 2001). Growing up in a Slavic household, caraway seed was a staple spice in my mom’s kitchen.
For more information about caraway, please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month web page.
Photo Credits: 1) Carum carvi flowers and leaves (Guy Waterval, via Wikimedia); 2) Caraway seeds (courtesy of the author); 3) Silesian bread with caraway seeds (Silar, via Wikimedia)
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Bown, Deni. 2001 The Herb Society of America new encyclopedia of herbs and their uses. London: Doring Kindersley.
Knab, Sophie. 2020. Polish herbs, flowers and folk medicine. New York: Hippocrene Books.
Marchetti, Domenica. 2013. The caraway seed is a spice worth meeting. NPR. Accessed 8/30/22. Available from https://www.npr.org/2013/03/05/173529055/the-caraway-seed-is-a-spice-worth-meeting
Ravindran, P. (ed). 2017. Caraway: Carum carvi. The encyclopedia of herbs and spices. Accessed 8/30/22. CABI. Credo Reference Database.
WebMD. 2020. Caraway: Is it good for you. Accessed 8/30/22. Available from https://www.webmd.com/diet/caraway-good-for-you
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas
I loved your article and the herbal folklore anecdotes. I just discovered this spice when I attempted to make Hungarian goulash and it’s great in stews this time of year.
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Nicely done Maryann!
I only know of caraway bread and may have tried it in the past when shopping at a bakery shop in Brookline, MA. It was so lovely to have to stumble upon the word: ‘caraway seed’ here. Thank you for sharing. I am not wise…merely trying to be humble when all around me are so right they are!
Glad you were able to glean some new info from Maryann’s blog. We always do the same!
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