THIS queen of spices is used to flavour food and drinks with an intensely aromatic fragrance. Elettaria cardamomum is a member of the ginger family and locally we call the dried fruit capsule buah palaga.
It is found in curries and combines well with other herbs, particularly in Indian cooking. The cardamom plant is native to southern India and Sri Lanka, growing mainly in the highlands at an altitude of between 600 and 1,500 metres above sea level.
There are three natural varieties of green cardamom plants in India. Malabar is found in Kerala and has panicles growing horizontally along the ground. The Karnataka variety is found in Mysore and can be easily distinguished as the panicles grow vertically upwards. The other variety is called Vazhuka, a hybrid of the Malabar and Karnataka. Recent studies have also come up with hybrids called Njallani from Kerala and another new white variety of Vazhuka. Both have better yields.
A related species – Amomum compactum – is found in Indonesia. The locals call this kapulaga or pelage, but this is actually a false cardamom. It is mainly grown commercially in Sumatra and Java. We also grow it in Sadong Jaya.
Research work by the Department of Agriculture indicates this spice can be grown successfully in our highland areas such as Bario, Ba Kelalan and Long Semadoh.
Plant characteristics and cultivation
Cardamom is a perennial bush of the ginger family with sheathed stems reaching three to five metres tall. It has a large tuberous rhizome and long dark green leaves that are 40 to 60 centimetres long and up to 15 centimetres in width. Trailing leafy stalks will grow from the plant’s base at ground level. These bear seed pods.
The flowers are green with a white purple-veined tip. Like orchids, this plant needs good shade and should not be exposed to direct sunlight. In plantations, the undergrowth is cut to be planted at three-metre intervals using rhizomes.
Plants are collected before the pods ripen to avoid splitting during drying. The pods are dried using sulphur fumes.
Planting materials can be seeds or split ginger rhizomes. Freshly harvested seeds can first be sown in seed beds for a germination period of seven weeks or even longer. Nursery-grown seedlings can be transferred to polybags for one to two years before field planting.
Rhizome planting is a quicker process for field planting after a short time in polybags. Fruiting can be expected much earlier than with seed planting.
Pest and disease care
Weevils (Cholus spp) bore into rhizomes and feed on them. The adults will feed on the fruits too. Eggs are deposited nearby for the young grubs to burrow into the tender roots and spoil the plants.
Another pest is the shoot and capsule borer called Dichocrocis punctiferalis, which feeds on gingers and turmeric as well.
Disease-wise, the worst case is mosaic virus, which attacks the leaves and reduces yield, eventually causing the death of the plants.
Fruits are picked when fully developed to a mature green, which is about 100 days after flowering. The aroma gets stronger when matured and the colour of the seeds will turn from white to black. Overripe fruits will turn yellow.
Yield can be expected one and a half years after planting and would last for the next 15 years under good management. Harvested fruits can be cured or dried.
Do add some spice to your garden. Happy gardening. For details send me an email.