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The Great Cardamom Caper (Or How I Got Duped by an Impostor)

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The Great Cardamom Caper (Or How I Got Duped by an Impostor)

November 21, 2022

Once upon a time (well, in 2017), I wrote a post about a trio of gingers I was growing at home: ginger, turmeric, and cardamom. At least, I thought it was cardamom. While I warned would-be home-growers of cardamom not to expect its famously aromatic seeds, because the plants rarely flowered in captivity, I extolled the virtues of the plant’s “handsome leaves,” which had a “wonderful perfume, something between scented rose petals and incense,” and which I used to flavor dinners and drinks. My description of those scented leaves raised a botanically-informed eyebrow, whose owner left a surprising comment on the post. My cardamom was not cardamom, they said. And they were right. It appears that many—if not most—plants grown and sold as cardamom in the United States are not. Cardamom, that is.

Draw closer for the great mea culpa and an interesting tale. It’s not the most pressing issue of our times, but if you are plant-obsessed, it is intriguing.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: The plant that I thought was true cardamom. It is probably Alpinia nutans, a so-called false cardamom.

I do have an excuse. The flourishing plant that I had been growing outdoors in summer and indoors in winter was sold to me by a reputable grower, Companion Plants, in Ohio. I did not expect my “cardamom” to bloom (or make seed), because all online sources explained that plants overwintering indoors never would. So I settled happily for its mounded, low-maintenance, lush appearance and its fragrant leaves. The blooms would have confirmed the plant’s identity at once: True cardamom flowers close to soil level, whereas the various false cardamoms bloom at the end of stems.

The fragrance of the leaves of the plant that I was growing is one of the keys to telling apart true cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) from so-called false cardamoms, which may be Alpinia nutans (sometimes called cinnamom ginger) and as well other species of Alpinia.

I have since seen false cardamom growing in more than one botanic garden’s tropical collection, confidently labeled Elletaria cardamomum. Curators? Go sniff your leaves. Now.

As soon as I read that 2020 comment on my erroneous post, I went hunting for information (but did not discover the identity of the commenter). The first good source remains perennially mysterious: a WordPress site dedicated to a single anonymous post, explaining the difference, in authoritative detail, between true cardamom and false. There are no other entries, and no contact information. “False cardamoms,” wrote the informed author, “(many Alpinias such as Alpinia nutans and A. calcarata), have fragrant leaves when rubbed or crushed.  The leaves of true cardamom ARE NOT FRAGRANT.” Their caps. I went and rubbed my healthy plant’s lush leaves yet again. They still smelled delicious. Oh, dear.

Above: Two pots of healthy false cardamom overwintering in our apartment.

Real-person feedback from someone who was aware of the identity-crisis was required. It came first from Randy Myers, the eponymous proprietor of Randy’s Tropical Plants in Florida, who confirmed in an email that true cardamom does not have fragrant leaves. He was emphatic that the two plants in question are not actually lookalikes: “They are VERY  different from each other,” he wrote. (This issue seems to inspire caps.) He added, “I myself used to sell this plant as ‘true’ cardamom, because it was sold to me as true cardamom.” His own moment of enlightenment came when an Indonesian friend sent him pictures of a cardamom plantation there. And he decided against growing the real deal, because “even in Florida it requires a greenhouse… The truth is,” he concluded, “that Alpinia nutans, which is almost certainly what you have, is a much prettier, easier to grow, and ultimately more useful plant.”

Another commenter on that post of mine began to cultivate cardamom for sale more recently, going to meticulous lengths to describe the differences between the true and the false. Aaron Cagle is a biologist who owns a Wizard Tree Nursery, in Florida. Determined to offer genuine Elettaria cardamomum to customers, he propagated his plants from rhizomes acquired in India. The plants were healthy. And then they bloomed. Not as soil level, but at the end of a stem. “Duped,” he wrote in a recent email to me.

Above: Re-potting my new, true cardamom on our tiny Brooklyn terrace.

Peter Borchard, the founder of Companion Plants, whose mis-labeled cardamom I had bought, was very transparent about the mix-up. In an emailed conversation he explained that the plants were sold to his nursery by a “ginger expert in Florida” who had misidentified them. He set about rectifying the situation, and in early 2021 he sent me a surprise: one of the first “pups” of a single true cardamom he had acquired from Logee’s Greenhouse in Connecticut.

In a recent phone call, Byron Martin, the owner of Logee’s Greenhouse, illuminated the cardamom darkness: “We had a cardamom here that was not the right one… For 60 to 70 years it was widely spread as the cardamom of commerce” in the nursery trade. It had scented leaves and was around three feet tall.  Sound familiar? Then, “four to five years ago we got a plant out of Hawaii, which is the true cardamom.” It’s five to six feet tall. Martin actually visited the grower to see those plants in situ. They bloomed but did not fruit reliably after flowering, even in Hawaii.

Logee’s most recent cardamom acquisition is from tissue culture (TC) provided by Agri-Starts in Florida, who managed to get one – just one –  cardamom seed to germinate. The tissue-cultured, grown-up plant set fruit, but even though Martin has hand-pollinated the cardamom meticulously with a paintbrush, the formation of those famous seeds remains elusive. “I do believe that there needs to be genetic diversity to set fruit,” says Martin, who also suspects that native pollinators in the plants’ home range may be key to the production of cardamom pods.

Above: Galangal on the left, true cardamom on the right.

I potted up my real cardamom (from Companion Plants, via Logee’s, by way of Agri-Starts) and it spent some very happy summer months on our Brooklyn terrace, growing tall and strong in New York City’s tropical summer. The difference between the two plants was apparent immediately. The true cardamom’s leaves were indeed not fragrant (at all). And its habit soon became statuesque, rather than smaller, and broader.

The cardamom came indoors in fall 2021, where it spent three healthy months beside its neighbor, a flourishing galangal.

Above: The tell-tale signs of dreaded spider mite, a pest that relishes dry, indoor conditions.

My own cardamom story does not have a fairytale ending: Over the course of a few weeks in early 2022, the cardamom turned yellow and died. It may have been user-error, and overwatering; it may have been spider mites. It may have been longing for its tropical homeland. When I let Peter Borchard know, he echoed what others have said: “It is a little more finicky than many in this family.” He wrote in an email that until he figures out the cause, “we’ll be propagating but rarely offering it for sale; there’s a short window when the new growth looks good in spring before they start yellowing out.” In the meantime, he is sending a new plant, and I will try again. Never surrender!

Byron Martin, of Logee’s, has not experienced cultivation challenges, but does note that cardamom “is a real tropical.” Meaning, it will tolerate no chill at all. His greenhouse-residing cardamom experiences some browning at the tips, “only because it is so hot up there.” His advice for home growers, should they score an actual specimen? “You need room for it,” he says. “It’s a very vigorous grower.”

The false cardamom remains the lowest-maintenance houseplant I have ever owned. And those leaves really are good, in all the ways I extolled, back then.

They’re just not, um…cardamom.

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