Caraway (Carum carvi) is an aromatic herbaceous plant, but is better known for their seeds. The origins of the name come from the Arabic “al-karwiya” seeds. Others believe the origin of the name is Latin from the word carvi, originating from Caria where the caraway plant may have first been used.1
Growing caraway requires some patience as the plant is biennial.2 This means the plant has a two-year biological cycle. In the first year, it produces a root structure, stems and leaves. During the second growing season, the plant completes the formation of flowers, fruit or seeds. Following the second season, many will reseed and then the plant usually dies. Most biennials are vegetables.
Caraway is usually grown for its intensely scented seeds or as a parsnip-like root vegetable.3 It is hardy, growing to about 8 inches in the first year with finely divided leaves and a long taproot. By the second year, the stalks grow up to 36 inches and develop white or pink flowers appearing between May and August.
Caraway seeds are often added to breads, cakes, soups and cabbage dishes to add a pungent flavor. By some accounts, it’s the oldest known condiment and was once a key ingredient in love potions.
Archaeologists have dated the plant to the Stone Age and it has also been found in Egyptian tombs. The first century Greek physician Dioscorides used it to make a tonic to restore the color in the cheeks of those with pale complexions. Julius Caesar’s favorite bread was made with caraway seeds and it was a favored medicine in ancient civilizations of Egypt, Persia and Greece.4
Caraway was first introduced in England in the 14th century in a cookbook compiled for King Richard II. Later it was eaten at the end of a meal to cleanse the palate. William Shakespeare helped popularize this practice in a scene from Henry IV when, in an invitation to Falstaff, he was invited to5 “partake of a pippin … with a dish of caraway.”
German, Austrian, Dutch and Eastern European cooks tend to use the herb to balance fatty meats like duck and goose. Caraway also has a history of use outside the kitchen as Egyptians reportedly buried their dead with the plant to ward off evil spirits, or to protect against theft. The ancient Greeks used it in cosmetic solutions and as a light sedative.6
In German folklore, caraway seeds were placed beneath children’s beds to ward off witches. It was also added to chicken feed in the hopes it would keep the animals from wandering off. Today, it is still sometimes given to homing pigeons.7
The caraway plant is a cool-season biennial,8 doing best in sun or partial shade in zones 4 through 10.9 In cooler zones, the plant appreciates full sun, while in warmer zones it needs partial shade during the heat of the afternoon sun.
Since the caraway plant has a long tap root, it doesn’t do well in small containers. If a container garden is your choice, be sure the pot is at least 8 in deep — the deeper the better. Prepare your soil with organic matter and keep the pH between 6.0 and 7.5.10
Caraway plants should be sown either in the spring or autumn. In the springtime, plant the seeds after the last frost. For an earlier start, consider planting indoors in a tray. However, ensure you transplant the plants to the garden before the root appears, as it is easily damaged.11
Caraway can also be started from seed in the fall for early spring plants. If planting in the fall, give them winter protection so they produce flowers and seeds in the second year. Additionally, the plant can be started from cuttings of new growth taken in the summer or fall.
Sow the seeds one-fourth inch deep and then thin the seedlings to 12 to 18 inches apart. The plants appreciate moist soil without developing a water log in the roots. They do not like humidity, however, so don’t use overhead watering.12 Fortunately, the plant is not usually affected by insects. Foliage challenges may be prevented by allowing the leaves to dry between watering.13
The leaves of the plant can be harvested from spring onward once the plant is well-established and at least 6 inches or taller.14 Use them immediately in fresh salads or dry them on a flat tray and store in an airtight container for flavoring later. In this way, they can last for up to a year.
The seeds should be harvested once they appear on the plant and develop a deep brown color. To do this, cut the seed heads, including a fairly long stalk, using shears or a sharp knife to avoid damaging the plant. If you leave the seed head in the garden too long, the plant will reseed the garden in a good stiff wind.15
Tie a piece of muslin or paper bag around the seed head and hang the stems upside down to allow the plant to continue to ripen. When the seeds are ready, they’ll fall out of the seed head and into the bag or muslin.
Fresh seeds can be replanted immediately, or they can be placed on a fine-mesh to dry for several days and then stored in an airtight container to be used in the kitchen.16 Once you harvest your seeds, consider digging up the tap root and using it as you would any other root vegetable, cutting it and cooking soups or stews.17
The plant is easy to grow, care for and harvest in your own garden, giving you easy access to an excellent source of potassium and calcium. Caraway also contains powerful antioxidant phytochemicals, the most prevalent of which are the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which help neutralize and remove free radicals and prevent degenerative diseases.
Caraway is also high in fiber and contains vitamins C, A, E and B complex. Adding the leaves, seeds and root and to your regular diet can be beneficial to your health in a number of ways. For instance caraway may help:18,19
- Promote digestive health — A 100-gram serving of caraway seeds provides 38 grams of fiber,20 a dietary component that helps maintain proper digestive health promoting regularity and helps reduce your risk of stomach and intestinal diseases.
- Fight microbes — Caraway essential oil has antibacterial properties, and has been found to help inhibit harmful organisms like salmonella.21
- Manage inflammation — According to Organic Facts, taking caraway oil with raw honey or warm water may help loosen up mucus in the respiratory system as well as control the inflammation in the airways.22 Even smelling the powerful oil may help break up congestion from coughs and colds and provide relief for those with bronchitis.
- Improve sleep quality — Magnesium, a mineral found in caraway seeds, may help enhance the duration, quality and tranquility of sleep, leaving you feeling better for the next day.
The essential oil from the caraway plant has been used in manufacturing processes, such as for flavor in certain medications or fragrances for soaps and toothpaste. Caraway oil is also used in aromatherapy and appreciated for its warming and stress-relieving properties.
Caraway oil promotes skin and hair health as it is an effective tissue regenerator. Some find it helps fight oily skin, clear acne and heal bruises and boils. The oil has antiseptic, antihistamine, antispasmodic, digestive and disinfectant properties making it beneficial for23 treating or alleviating indigestion, heart ailments, urinary issues and internal infections.
The oil is made from distilling the seeds of the plant and is usually used topically or inhaled. Try diffusing it in a burner or vaporizer, blending it with massage oil or adding it to a cream or lotion.
While generally safe for most, I do not recommend it for pregnant women as it can induce menstruation. I advise you do a sensitivity test on a small area before applying generally or using it in a vaporizer or inhaler. Apply a drop of diluted oil to the inner aspect of your elbow and observe for a reaction over 24 hours.
Skin irritations, such as rashes and itching may occur when you use the oil high concentrations even if you do not have an allergy to the oil, so be sure to dilute it with a safe carrier oil before applying it on your skin.
Caraway has an aromatic, sweet taste with a licorice flavor that adds richness to your dishes. Caraway seeds make for an interesting twist when making sauerkraut and the roots may be added to a pan of roasted autumn vegetables. The leaves may be added to salad as a flavor herb. This crispy chicken recipe is adapted from All Recipes:24
Crispy Roasted Chicken
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon dried sage
- 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 5 tablespoons olive or coconut oil
- 1 whole chicken, cut in half lengthwise
- Heat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit (F).
- Combine the kosher salt, caraway seeds, sage, fennel, coriander and rosemary in a spice grinder or mortar and grind to a coarse powder.
- Add the mixture to a bowl and stir in paprika, garlic powder, flour and onion powder, then add the oil to make a smooth paste.
- Pat chicken halves dry with paper towels, taking care to wear gloves and dispose of the towels safely to avoid potential cross contamination.
- Brush spice paste onto the halves, coating both sides and taking care to season under wings and legs.
- Place in a baking dish with skin sides up, leaving space around the chicken so halves aren’t touching.
- Roast until a meat thermometer inserted in a thigh reads 165 F, or about one hour.
- Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing.
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