Cardamom: Tropical Spice and…Scandinavian Staple!?

 

By Amy Forsberg

Green cardamom seed podsI had what seemed like a simple question: How and why did cardamom, the spice native to southern India, become such an essential and beloved baking spice in snowy Scandinavia? I have Swedish ancestry, and absolutely love cardamom bread and other baked goods made with cardamom. In Scandinavian culture, cardamom often represents comfort and home and family and holiday treats–similar to how we in the U.S. view cinnamon, perhaps. (Of course, cinnamon is also of South Asian origin!) I started with some hazy knowledge of the history of the spice trade–that cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and ginger spread throughout the world from their places of origin via complex trade routes over the course of many centuries, contributing to the rise and fall of various empires and economies. But I was curious why cardamom, in particular, took root in Scandinavia of all places. Researching that question took me on a fascinating journey through human history and around the world, teaching me much more about the spice trade and about how all of Europe went crazy for spices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Good answers to my questions remained elusive, perhaps lost to history. But the story of the spice trade, and cardamom’s place in it, is an interesting one. So let’s talk about cardamom!

Cardamom is not as well known in the United States as in some parts of the world. The spice known as cardamom is the seed of Elettaria cardamomum, an herbaceous perennial in the ginger family, Zingerberaceae. This is the source of both green and white cardamom, which is just green cardamom that has been bleached and which has a milder flavor. The scent and flavor combines notes of citrus, mint, and pine, and can be described as sweet, spicy, herbal, and floral.

There is a lesser known cousin, black cardamom, that is derived from Amomum subulatum. The pods of black cardamom are larger than the green and have a characteristic smoky flavor imparted during the drying process. Black cardamom is used in Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese cuisine.

Elettaria cardamomum is tropical, needing shade and consistent year-round warmth (temperatures between 50° and 95°F) and humidity in order to flower and fruit. In such a setting, it can reach 15 feet tall! It grows from rhizomes, much like ginger and turmeric, and produces panicles of flowers at the base of the foliage, which then develop into pods containing 15-20 seeds each. Native to the Western Ghats mountain range in southern India, it is now grown commercially primarily in Guatemala, but also in India and Sri Lanka. It is the third most costly spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla. Cardamom has been valued for culinary and medicinal uses for thousands of years. Today, it is consumed around the world, but primarily in India and the Middle East, followed by South Asia, the United States, and the European Union. 

Periplous_of_the_Erythraean_Sea.svgThe earliest recorded use of cardamom is in an ancient Sanskrit text dating to about 3000 BC that lists cardamom as one of the spices to be poured in a sacrificial fire during marriage ceremonies. Use spread throughout the ancient world, and by 100 AD, cardamom was in use throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East for cooking, perfumery, and medicine. Both Greece and Rome imported large quantities of cardamom and used it in cuisine as well as medicine. The famous Greek physician, Dioscorides, mentions cardamom, among other imported spices, as a useful medicine—especially as a digestive aid after a heavy meal. Recipes from Apicius, the first-century Roman cookbook, use generous amounts of ginger, pepper, and cardamom. The Persian and Arabian empires imported large quantities of cardamom from India, and their detailed cookbooks and medical texts specify different grades, sizes, and types of cardamom. 

Cardamom and other spices, such as ginger, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves, were brought to the Mediterranean by Arab traders and were traded in Naples, Venice, and Corsica, among other ports. Those who controlled the trade allowed their customers to remain in the dark as to the original source of the spices for centuries. Ancient historians, such as Pliny, believed cardamom grew in Arabia. The status and allure of these spices was increased by the mystery of their true origin, and this helped keep prices high. Trade involved many middlemen, and few, if any, along the routes knew where the goods had originated or where they would end up. Trade in spices was lucrative because the spices were relatively inexpensive at their source and were compact, lightweight, and non-perishable compared to many other goods. Spice routes were frequently shifting due to wars and power struggles, so by the time the spices reached a final destination, they had changed hands many times and were fantastically expensive. Thus, they were viewed as “high status” and “exotic” luxury goods.

Map of ScandinaviaBy the early Middle Ages, cardamom and other spices were finding their way up into Northern and Western Europe. The Vikings are commonly credited with bringing cardamom home to Scandinavia after encountering it in Constantinople towards the end of the Viking era in the early 11th century. However, Daniel Serra, a culinary archaeologist, says in his book, An Early Meal–A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey, that this is likely wrong due to a total lack of evidence. The earliest mention of cardamom in Scandinavia is in a 13th century cookbook written by a Danish monk in which the recipes that contain cardamom are nearly identical to Moorish recipes of the same era. Serra thinks the Moors likely introduced cardamom to Scandinavia. According to this theory, cardamom and other spices would have found their way from the Iberian peninsula up to London, and then from London, were traded along a German trade route up into Scandinavia.

Renaissance banquetThe exact details of the how and when cardamom first found its way to Scandinavia may never be proven precisely. But what is well-documented is how all of Europe went spice crazy during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Spices such as cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom were expensive and fashionable throughout Europe and were used lavishly in large banquets that would feature dozens of types of exotic game birds and meats, sauces and stews, and large quantities of spiced wine. These banquets could last for days and were an important way to display wealth and status. 

Green cardamom seeds

Green cardamom seeds

The cliché often repeated that spices were used in the Middle Ages to cover the taste of spoiled meat does not stand up to scrutiny. People who could afford spices could afford fresh meat, as spices were more expensive than meat. Food was commonly dried, salted, or pickled to preserve it, and spices are not an effective means of doctoring spoiled meat in any case.

In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut, on the Malabar Coast of southern India, and at long last discovered the vast markets where the global spice trade originated. In short order, the Portuguese violently took control of the spice trade and for the first time, imported spices directly to Europe ending the circuitous Arab-controlled trade routes over land from the Middle East into the Mediterranean, and eliminating many middlemen. Prices fell in Europe, and spices came within reach of even “middle class” people for special occasions. 

Swedish cardamom roll

Swedish cardamom roll

In the 1590s, the Dutch took over spice production and trade, and prices dropped even further as supply increased. The “culinary reign” of spices that had lasted in Europe from Roman times through the Renaissance ended in the 1700s. By the 1800s, spices in Europe were plentiful and inexpensive enough to be used daily in foods like breads, cookies, and coffee, but had lost their mystery, glamour, and status. Interestingly, these same spices completely fell out of favor for most savory cuisine throughout Europe. Food was, instead, seasoned primarily with herbs, wine, and cheeses, much as today. This transition came first to Southern Europe and then spread gradually into Northern Europe. Spices largely disappeared from European cuisine, with the notable exceptions of saffron in Spanish paella and cardamom in Scandinavian baked goods and desserts. 

Again, the question of why Scandinavia, in particular, held onto the use of cardamom, in particular, is difficult to answer. Daniel Serra speculates that, because Scandinavia is on the fringes of the continent, it clung to medieval food ways longer—”outposts” are often slower to adopt changes and new styles. This is not a complete or satisfying answer, though. It is true, however, that the unique flavor of cardamom marries perfectly with sweet, yeasted bread dough, and that a good cardamom bun or braided loaf is a wonderful thing, especially when paired with coffee and shared with friends!

Scandinavian Coffee Braid 

Scandinavian coffee braid(From Scandinavian Feasts by Beatrice Ojakangas. Also known as vetebröd in Sweden or pulla in Finland, this sweet yeast dough is versatile; it can be shaped into braids (as in this recipe) or made into buns known as kardemummabullar.)

  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • ½ cup warm water (105°F -115°F)
  • 2 cups milk, scalded to 170°F and cooled
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly crushed cardamom
  • 4 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 8-9 cups flour
  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons milk
  • ½ cup sliced almonds
  • ½ cup pearl sugar or coarsely crushed sugar cubes

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Let stand about 5 minutes or until the yeast bubbles. Stir in the milk, sugar, salt, cardamom, eggs, and four cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Add the butter.

Gradually stir enough of the remaining flour to make a stiff dough. Turn out onto a floured board. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes. Wash and grease the bowl, and set it aside.

Knead the dough, adding flour as necessary, until it is smooth, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in the prepared bowl, turning the dough to grease it on all sides. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 ½ – 2 hours. Punch down. Turn the dough out onto an oiled surface.

To make three braided loaves: Divide dough into 3 parts. Divide each part into three portions. Roll each portion into a 30” long rope. Braid three ropes together to make a loaf. Pinch the ends together, and tuck them under the loaf. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet, and repeat with the remaining portions of dough. Let rise in a warm place until almost doubled, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Brush loaves with the egg and milk mixture and sprinkle with the sliced almonds and/or pearl sugar. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until lightly browned. Do not overbake. Cool on racks.

Photo Credits: 1) Green cardamom seed pods (C. Moore); 2) Green cardamom plant (Creative Commons, https://snl.no/kardemomme); 3) Green cardamom flower (Creative Commons, Reji Jacob, Mukkoottuthara, Pathanamthitta District of Kerala state) and black cardamom flower (Wikimedia Commons by Praptipanigrahi – own work); 4) Green and black cardamom seed pods (C. Moore); 5) Trade route map (Wikipedia, George Tsiagalakis); 6) Spices (Creative Commons); 7) Map of Scandinavia (mapsofeurope.net); 8) Painting of Renaissance banquet (hisour.com); 9) Green cardamom seeds (C. Moore); 10) Swedish pastry interlude: a cardamom roll at the Vasa Museum cafe, Creative Commons by alykat); 11) Scandinavian coffee braid (Wikipedia).

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.

References

Corn, C. 1999. The scents of Eden: A history of the spice trade. New York: Kodansha International.

Citron, C. 2020. Cardamom: How an Indian spice became a Swedish staple. ArcGIS StoryMaps. Esri. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/a9cfbc9e11f04a79885521bc559c9815

Dunn, S. 2021. Cardamom: How did it become Scandinavia’s favorite spice? Cook’s Illustrated. America’s Test Kitchen. https://www.cooksillustrated.com/articles/3076-cardamom-how-did-it-become-scandinavia-s-favorite-spice

Freedman, P. 2008. Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Krondl, M. 2007. The taste of conquest: The rise and fall of the three great cities of spice. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mehra, Rupali. 2019. How spices have connected Sweden and India since the Viking Age. The Local SE. The Local Europe AB. https://www.thelocal.se/20190104/how-spices-have-connected-sweden-with-india-since-the-viking-age/

Miltner, Olivia. 2017. The hidden history of Scandinavia’s love of cardamom. OZY.  https://www.ozy.com/around-the-world/the-hidden-history-of-scandinavias-love-of-cardamom/82046/

Missouri Botanical Garden (Internet). Elettaria cardamomum. Accessed September 4, 2021. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=287608&isprofile=0&

Turner, Jack. 2004. Spice: The history of a temptation. New York: Random House.


Amy Forsberg lives in Maryland and gardens full-time at Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens in Washington D.C., where she cares for the Japanese Style Garden. Previously, she gardened at the U.S. National Arboretum and the U.S. Botanic Garden. She was the 2001 National Herb Garden intern.

Camellia sinensis – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

Camellia_sinensis_Bois_Cheri by Pancrat via Wikipedia CommonsTea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world, after water. Countless books have been written about tea, which is the leaf product of this herbal shrub, Camellia sinensis. The history of C. sinensis and its product goes back almost 5,000 years, and it is believed to be one of the oldest plants cultivated by humans. C. sinensis is truly a plant that has been responsible for wars, influenced social customs worldwide, inspired religious practices, and, of course, has lifted many troubled and tired spirits with its medicinal properties. 

Camellia sinensis is an evergreen shrub or small tree that is usually trimmed to about six feet when cultivated for its leaves. It thrives in acidic, rich soil where rainfall is adequate throughout the year, and grows in dappled shade to full sun. It is winter hardy in zones 7-9 when grown as a landscape shrub, but it can also be grown in a pot and moved indoors or grown in a greenhouse where winter temperatures fall below freezing. The fragrant white flowers have  yellow stamens and bloom in the fall to early winter and are attractive to pollinators.

Radiocarbon dating has placed some ancient C. sinensis shrubs growing in regions of China at up to 3,200 years old. Some of these old shrubs have been cut down to make way for growing rubber trees.

The new leaves of Camellia sinensis are harvested for tea. All types of tea come from two C. sinensis varieties: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (Chinese tea) and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (India tea). Six true teas come from C. sinensis: black, white, oolong, green, pu-erh, and a rare yellow tea (all other “teas” are infusions of flowers, herbs, roots, or bark, and are properly called tisanes). The differences in taste, color, and aroma of these teas depend on where they were grown, their variety, and the processing of the leaves. The small white flowers of C. sinensis are edible and are used to brew a sweet, rich drink. China is the number one producer of tea, producing two million tons annually. India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka follow China in tea production in that order. Interestingly, Turkey is the largest consumer of tea per capita.Tea The-shapes-and-tea-soup-color-of-different-types-of-tea

The tea plant contains over 500 compounds that contribute to its flavor and health benefits. Green tea’s first recorded use in ancient China was for medicinal purposes, where it was used as a preventive drink for many health problems. Even today, green tea is used to boost the immune system, and researchers have found it to be an effective ingredient in cosmetic products to block UV rays and to reduce cellulite tissue. Though all teas have medicinal benefits, black tea contains antioxidants and other compounds that are particularly good for heart and gut health. Researchers have found that older C. sinensis shrubs grown at higher elevations have the most medicinal compounds.

The history of tea is a long one. In one popular Chinese legend, Emperor Shen Nung, known as the Father of Chinese medicine, in 2737 BCE was drinking a bowl of hot water when the leaves of the tree he was sitting under dropped into his water. After taking a drink of the water, he observed a nice flavor and felt restored. He encouraged people to cultivate the tea plant. And with that, tea as an important commodity and drink was born.  

Japanese tea ceremonyTea was introduced into Japan and Korea by Buddhist monks in the 6th century, where it became a drink of the religious classes. The tea ceremony, developed by Buddhist monks, became an important social custom. Tea was considered a medicinal drink at that time. Portuguese priests and traders brought tea to the west in the early 16th century. Drinking tea became popular in Britain in the 17th century, and tea became a worldwide industry with huge demand. 

An interesting tea story reveals that the British introduced tea cultivation in India to compete with the Chinese monopoly of tea. As tea consumption grew around the world, the British became the major supplier of the product. Tea had to be paid for in silver bullion, and some British feared damage to their economy as a result of the loss of so much bullion. As a way to generate more bullion, Britain began exporting opium to the Chinese and increased imports fivefold between 1821 and 1837. Seeing the effects of opium on their people, the Qing government banned the import of opium into China. The banning of opium created financial exchange problems for the British and was one of the causes of the First Opium War. It was at this time that the British brought the tea plant to their colony in India and began growing it to fill worldwide demand for the leaves. 

The British Tea Act ignited the American Revolution with the Boston Tea Party when 342 tea chests were dumped into the harbor. Americans switched from drinking tea to drinking coffee and teas made with other plants. But the American’s love of the true tea continued even after the war. Fast American clipper ships began sailing to China to bring home the product. It’s interesting to note that the first three American millionaires—T.H. Perkins of Boston, Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, and Jacob Astor of New York—all made some of their fortune in the tea trade.

Tea -Man picking tea leavesIt is a long and interesting history for this simple drink brewed from the leaves of the C. sinensis plant. The story continues with iced tea, tea bags, matcha tea, chai, and now bubble tea and tea-infused cocktails. While old tea leaves from the ancient trees have become a valuable investment for some, tea connoisseurs believe that artisanal teas produced in the ancient art of tea processing are a promise for the future. 

As we drink our cup of tea, we should remember that every tea leaf is touched by human hands. An interesting, well-researched fiction book about the tea plant is Lisa See’s The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. It is a fascinating story of the history of tea and tea making in China.

For more information about Camellia sinensis, recipes, and a screen saver, go to the Herb Society of America’s webpage https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

(Editor’s Note: Check out our recent post by Matt Millage for info on other Camellia species: https://herbsocietyblog.wordpress.com/2020/11/16/not-just-for-teatime-the-herbal-significance-of-camellias/)

Photo Credits: 1) Camellia sinensis leaf and flower (Pancrat via Wikipedia Commons); 2) Different teas and their colors (Wikimedia Commons); 3) Japanese tea ceremony (Wikimedia Commons); 4) Picking tea in China (Wikimedia Commons)

References

Koch, W., Zagórska, J., Marzec, Z., & Kukula-Koch, W. (2019). Applications of Tea (Camellia sinensis) and its Active Constituents in Cosmetics. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 24(23), 4277. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules24234277  Accessed 5/3/21.

Not Just Tea Panel: The Untold History and Future of Tea. (2020) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMsZGkG1Myc. Accessed  5/17/21.

Reich, Anna. (2010). Coffee and Tea History in a Cup. The Herbarist. 76, 8-15.

See, Lisa. (2017). The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. New York, Scribner.

Tea Crossing. Where Does Tea Come From? Complete Guide: Camellia Sinensis. (2021). https://teacrossing.com/where-does-tea-come-from-complete-guide-camellia-sinensis/ Accessed 5/3/21.

Wikipedia. History of Tea. (2021) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tea  Accessed 5/3/21.

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.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Growing Up with Betel Nut

By Shaila Gupte

04 Betel Nuts 610-46 VFBetel nut (pronounced bet′-al) palm trees (Areca catechu) are grown in different parts of India, as well as elsewhere in South Asia and in China. Still, the betel nuts grown in Konkan—the coastal region south of Mumbai—are widely considered among the best quality.

My family owns a very small plantation, which is overseen by my brother, about 120 miles south of Mumbai. The various crops include betel nut (Areca catechu), coconut (Cocos nucifera), hapus mango (Mangifera indica ‘Alphonso’), 01 Betel Nuts 538 VFjackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), pomelo (Citrus maxima), kokum (Garcinia indica), finger bananas (Musa acuminata Colla), soursop (Annona muricata), guava (Psidium guajav), chikoo (Manilkara zapota), various flowering shrubs, and vegetables. Out of all these, the major cash crop is betel nut, followed by coconut. In Konkan, a one-acre farm can support a family of four; vegetables and fruits grown on the farm are eaten, while extra items are sold. Grains and meat are purchased mostly with the money from the betel nut cash crop and also, to a much smaller extent, from coconut, fruits, and vegetables.

Betel trees can grow up to 50 feet in height and are slender and flexible, in contrast to coconut trees, which are very stout. The tree sprouts from a betel nut (with its green outer layer) planted about six inches deep in moist soil. The soil needs moisture until the first few leaves appear. The sapling is then transplanted to its permanent location in rows about 6 – 8 feet apart. After that, the soil needs to dry out between waterings. The most common and efficient irrigation is the drip system in which the water slowly soaks into the soil from soaker pipes at the base of the tree. The tree needs a year-round supply of water and grows best in full sun, though it can survive in partial shade. Usually, cow dung is 03 Betel Nuts 523 VFused as a fertilizer.

Betel nut fruits appear about 4 – 5 years after planting. Each fruit cycle takes about one year from when a small flower appears until the fruit is ready to harvest. When the fruit is ripe, the husk changes color to reddish brown. At that point, the fruit is cut off from the tree. Experienced betel tree climbers can bend the tree enough to jump from one tree to the other like monkeys. The ripe fruit is then dried in direct sunlight with the husk partially removed to speed drying. When completely dry, the fruit is “shucked,” leaving a hard tan colored nut the size of a walnut. The yield varies from 5 – 7 to 200 – 300 nuts per tree, depending on the tree’s age and growth conditions. In 2018, the wholesale price for the variety called “Shrivardan gota” was 200 – 300 rupees/kilo (about US $1.50-$2.50/lb). The price of betel nut has been dropping over the years as the production around the world increases.

Betel nut is eaten alone or in a paan. In most parts of India, paan is the most popular after-dinner mouth freshener. Paan is made with betel leaves from the Piper betle plant (closely related to black pepper, Piper nigrum), betel nut (Areca catechu), calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), catechu (an extract from acacia trees), cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, rose petal preserve, and other individualized ingredients. The betel nut contains the alkaloid arecoline, which is a habit forming substance similar to nicotine, with the side effect of cardiovascular constriction, among other health hazards. Paan5Despite this medical information, the belief is that eating paan helps digestion, especially after a heavy meal with meat. Some people put chewing tobacco in the paan for an extra kick. The saliva containing tobacco is not swallowed; it is spit out. (Note: Saliva causes a chemical reaction to take place between the betel leaf (Piper betle) and the lime, turning the saliva (and sometimes the consumer’s teeth) red. Because of this, one sees a lot of red colored street corners near the paan shops in India.) 

We had a shiny brass octagonal box for storing paan ingredients. My father ate 4 – 5 paans per day. My mother made paans for him in the morning and put them in a small silver box to take to work. When we were young, on Sundays after a heavy mid-day meal, we would buy paan from the paan shop with added ingredients to our liking, eat them, and stick our tongues out to see whose tongue was the reddest!

02 Shaila and Prakash with Betel Nuts 607 VFBetel nut is a sacred fruit for most Hindu religious ceremonies. It can substitute for deities or can be used as an offering. Some Hindu rituals are to be performed by a couple. In such cases, if the man doing the ritual is widowed, the betel nut can be used in place of the wife. Traditional wedding invitations are started by giving betel nut to the invitees. Paradoxically, betel nuts are also a symbol of a commitment for an evil deal between criminals.

Without a doubt, the betel nut contributes mightily to both commerce and religion in Maharashtra, the state in central India where Mumbai is located and where I am from.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Stefan Kaben Images, except paan (Media India Group).

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.


Shaila Gupte grew up in Mumbai, India. She came to the United States to study and now considers Maryland home. She is a gardening and greenhouse volunteer in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and is a Master Gardener. When not at the Arboretum, she likes to grow vegetables of Indian origin.

Tamarind – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) is one of many tropical herbal trees. Its leaves, bark, wood, roots, and fruits have many uses. The tamarind tree Tamarindus indicais also an evergreen, long-lived landscape tree, reaching a height of 40 to 60 feet tall and a width of up to 25 feet wide. Its pinnate leaves close up at night. The branches droop to the ground, making it a graceful shade tree. A mature tree can produce up to 350-500 pounds of fruit each year. It is native to tropical Africa and is in the Fabaceae family. 

One of the earliest documented uses of tamarind was found in the Ganges Valley of India, where wood charcoal dating back to 1300 BCE was discovered. Tamarind was mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures as early as 1200 BCE. Arab physicians were reported to be the first to use the fruit pulp as medicine. It was the Arabs who named the tamarind, calling it “tamara hindi” or Indian date. It is thought that the Arabs were responsible for the spread of the tamarind through the Persian Gulf region and Egypt. There is documented use of tamarind in Egypt in 400 BCE. The tamarind was brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1600s. A tamarind tree was planted in Hawaii in 1797.

Tamarind-based drinksThe tamarind tree grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11 and therefore, is not commonly seen in the continental United States, except in southern Florida. It produces a showy light brown, bean-like fruit, which can be left on the tree for up to six months after maturing. The sweet-sour pulp that surrounds the seeds is rich in calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin and is a good source of niacin. The pulp is widely used in Mexico to make thirst-quenching juice drinks and even beer. It is also very popular in fruit candies. The fruit is used in Indian cuisines in curries, chutneys, meat sauces, and in a pickle dish called tamarind fish. Southeast Asians combine the pulp with chiles and use it for marinating chicken and fish before grilling. They also use it to flavor sauces, soups, and noodle dishes. Chefs in the United States are beginning to experiment with the sweet-sour flavor of tamarind pulp. Did you know that tamarind is a major ingredient in Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire Sauce? Tamarind CandyThe fruit pods are long-lasting and can be found in some grocery stores, especially those serving Hispanic, Indian, and Southeast Asian populations. 

All parts of this ancient tree have been used in traditional medicines in Africa and Asia and have a long list of maladies that they have treated. According to Purdue’s Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department (https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html), “Tamarind preparations are universally recognized as refrigerants in fevers and as laxatives and carminatives.” The ground-up seeds have been used as a poultice for boils, while the boiled leaves and flowers were used as poultices for sprains and swollen joints. The bark is astringent, tonic, and a fever reducer. An infusion of the roots has been used to treat chest complaints and leprosy. It has also been used to treat sunstroke, Datura poisoning, and alcohol intoxication. According to WebMD®, there is not sufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of tamarind to treat most of these illnesses. However, research has shown that eye drops containing tamarind seed extract do improve dry eye.

Throughout the tropical world, there are many legends and superstitions regarding the tamarind tree. Here are a few:

  • A Buddhist parable about tamarind seeds says that they are the symbol of faithfulness and forbearance. 
  • Some African tribes believe that the tree is sacred, and some Indians believe that one should not sleep under one because of the acid it “exhales” during the night.  
  • Some even believe that nothing will grow under a tamarind tree. However, Maude Grieve, in her 1931 book, A Modern Herbal, claimed that “some plants and bulbs bloomed luxuriantly under the tamarind trees in her garden in Bengal.”
  • The Burmese believe that the tree is the dwelling place of the rain god, and that the tree raises the temperature of the ground beneath it.
  • In Nyasaland, tamarind bark is soaked with corn and fed to livestock as a way of guaranteeing their return if they are lost or stolen.
  • In some Asian countries, it is believed that evil spirits inhabit the tamarind tree and building a house where it grows should be avoided.
  • In the Caribbean, old tamarind trees are believed to have spirits living in them.

The tamarind is an incredibly useful tree. The young leaves and shoots are eaten as a vegetable, and the flowers and leaves can be added to salads. The flowers are also important as a pollen source for bees. The leaves can be tamarind seed podsused as fodder for domestic animals and food for silkworms. The leaves are also used as garden mulch. 

The seeds are ground to make flour, or roasted and used as a coffee substitute or as an addition to coffee. The seeds are also processed to produce a natural pectin and food stabilizer. There are many more uses of the seeds that are too numerous to list. 

The oil produced from the tamarind is culinary grade oil and is also used in specialty varnishes, adhesives, dyeing, and tanning.

The wood of the tamarind is another example of exceptional usefulness as it is very hard and insect resistant. It makes great handles for tools and is prized for furniture and paneling. It is considered a valuable fuel source because it gives off intense heat. The branches of the tamarind are used as walking sticks. The bark contains tannins and is used in tanning hides and is also used to make twine.

Lea & Perrins Worcestershire SauceThe fruit pulp is useful as a dye fixative, or combined with sea water, it cleans silver, brass, and copper. In addition to all of these uses, school children in Africa use the seeds as learning aids in arithmetic lessons and as counters in traditional board games.

The next time you reach for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, remember the ancient tamarind tree and its usefulness in the tropical parts of our world.

 

 

Photo Credits: 1) Tamarindus indica (JIRCAS); 2) Tamarind-based beverages; 3) Tamarind-based confections; 4) Tamarind seed pods; 5) Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire sauce (Photos 2 – 5, courtesy of the author).

References

Ebifa-Othieno, Esther, et al. “Knowledge, attitudes and practices in tamarind use and conservation in Eastern Uganda. Journal of Ethnobiology & Ethnomedicine. Vol. 13. Jan. 2017. Available from Ebscohost. Accessed 10/16/20. 

El-Siddiq, K., et al. Tamarind, Tamarindus indica. England, Southhampton Centre for Underutilized Crops, 2006. Available from Google Scholar. Accessed 10/18/20.

Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. Harcourt, Brace, & Company. 1931.

History of tamarind.  Available from https://www.world-foodhistory.com/2011/07/history-of-tamarind.html.  Accessed 10/16/20.

Missouri Botanical Garden. Plant Finder. Available at http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx. Accessed 10/16/20.

Tamarind. Purdue University Horticulture and Landscape Department. Available from https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html. Accessed 10/18/20.

Tamarind. WebMD.  Available from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-819/tamarind. Accessed 10/18/20

Tamarind tree. Available from https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/02/20/tamarind-tree/. Accessed 10/16/20.

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.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Rudraksha Tree – A Medicinal Tree of India and Nepal

By Maryann Readal

Seeing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of strings of what looked to be brown seeds hanging in stores around holy places in India made me extremely curious about this seed.

rudraksh beads

Rudraksha beads for sale

On a recent visit to India and Nepal, it was a very common sight to see hundreds of people walking around Buddhist temples in a clockwise direction, while moving their fingers along a long strand of seeds. The seeds turned out to be from a tree called the rudraksha tree, Elaeocarpus ganitrus Roxb. I later found out that each string contains 108 seeds, and one fingers each seed while reciting a specific mantra, which is a word or phrase repeated over and over again. My curiosity was sharpened even further when an Indian astrologer gave me one of these seeds to use in order to ensure that my good fortune would continue.

Now I had to learn more about these seeds, and this is what my curiosity uncovered: The rudraksha tree grows at the base of the Himalayas, as well as in other tropical and subtropical areas like Hawaii, Guam, and the Maldives.

rudraksha seed

Rudraksha seed

The seeds from the trees growing in Nepal are the most prized, and  I was very excited to discover a tree growing where we were staying in Nepal whose seeds were still attached. The rudraksha tree is evergreen, reaching 200 feet in height, with racemes of fragrant white flowers that bloom in the rainy season. The fruits are about one centimeter in diameter and have a slightly smaller seed inside, which is the rudraksha seed. Because the fruit is blue, the tree is often referred to as the blueberry tree.

rudraksha tree

Rudraksha tree in fruit

E. ganitrus has been important in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. The leaves have antibacterial properties and are used to treat wounds. The leaves, bark, fruit, and seeds have been used to cure stress, anxiety, depression, palpitation, nerve pain, epilepsy, migraines, lack of concentration, asthma, hypertension, arthritis, and liver disease. Ongoing studies in India are exploring the pharmacological properties of E. ganitrus for its use in developing new drugs that treat a variety of diseases. For more information on this tree’s medicinal value, please see  Elaeocarpus Ganitrus (Rudraksha): A Reservoir Plant with their Pharmacological Effects in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences Review and Research.

The seeds from the rudraksha fruit have also been used for thousands of years for ritualistic, spiritual, and astrological purposes.

By Subhmanish

Shiva wearing rudraksha beads

The seeds are important to Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists for healing, meditation, controlling stress, and facilitating positive changes in the body, mind, and spirit. In ancient Indian folk tradition, they were thought to ward off evil spirits and omens.

There are several stories about the origins of the rudraksha tree. My favorite is one that tells of Shiva– the principal god of Hinduism–upon returning from a long period of meditation, opened his eyes and saw the suffering of humanity. His tears of compassion fell to earth and became rudraksha trees. The name rudraksha comes from the Sanskrit “rudra,” another name for Shiva and “aksha” meaning tears.

rudraksha offering

Beads as temple offering

So…it is not surprising to find people in India and Nepal circling their shrines fingering these strands of 108 beads, all the while warding off bad spirits due to the medicinal properties of the seeds and gaining peace through stress control by reciting the mantra and meditative walking.

A short, but interesting story about the seeds of a medicinal tree in India.

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.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.