Caraway: Is It A Herb, Spice, Or Root Vegetable?

Caraway (Carum carvi) is a biennial plant from the carrot family, Apiaceae. It’s majorly cultivated for its dried fruits (achenes), often mistaken as seeds, used as a spice, but the roots and leaves are also edible.

The plant is native to Europe and western Asia, where people have cultivated it since ancient times. The flavorful, aromatic “fruits” have an earthy flavor, slightly peppery and citrusy. It’s like anise in taste but a bit sharper.

You can add caraway as a spice to casseroles, bread, cheese, desserts, and many other recipes to give your dish a distinct flavor. Caraway is a prevalent spice in European cuisine. The Netherlands’ caraway has maintained a reputation for the best quality for a long time.

When it comes to the leaves, people commonly consume them as a herb, dried, fresh, or cooked. You can add them to stews, soups, and salads, enhancing the dish’s aroma, color, and taste. When dug in the first season, it’s a winter root vegetable. After that, you can use it like parsnips or carrots.

But what is the caraway plant? How long has it existed, and what kind of climate does it grow best in? Continue reading, and you’ll learn these and many other things about this excellent plant that you hadn’t known before.

Common NameCaraway, Common Caraway, Meridian Fennel, Persian Cumin
Botanical NameCarum Carvi
Plant TypeA Biennial Herb
Size (Fully Grown)12 To 30 Inches (About 30 To 76 cm) Tall
Sun ExposureFull Sun But Can Tolerate Partial Shade As Well
Soil TypeA Soil That Drains Well And Is Preferably Sandy
Soil pHFrom 6.0 To 7.0
Flower ColorWhite And Pink
U.S. Hardiness Zones3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, And 11
Native AreaWestern Asia And Europe

What Are The Different Caraway Varieties?

There are several different caraway varieties people grow across the globe. Though they’re similar in taste and aroma, we categorize them by their adapted climate and growth habits. Therefore, it’s essential to choose a suitable variety for your garden to see successful results.

Though there are many cultivars, most of them don’t have distinctive names. They’re usually marketed under the common name, caraway. But, you’ll likely find them under the classification, annual or biennial.

Annual Caraway

People usually grow annual caraway in the warmer regions since they’ll need a longer growing season. Sow them in winters, and with the long growing season, annual varieties bear rosettes and go to seed in the first year. Flowering stalks develop, with clusters of tiny flowers towards the end of the growing season. Each of the flowers bears fruit, that we dry before using them in the kitchen.

These varieties often reseed quite vigorously for successive growing seasons, and you won’t need to plant them again. In addition, people consider the annual types to be sweeter than the biennials.

Biennial Caraway

Biennial caraway is preferable for cooler climates. They need two seasons and will go to seed during the second year of growth. In the first year, they form rosettes. During the second year, they’ll shoot up long flowering stalks with umbels at the tips. The flowers bear fruits, which people use after drying them.

Sometimes, these varieties continue for a third year, giving another round of harvest. But, for maintaining a consistent supply of caraway, you’ll need to repeat sowing each year.

Where Does Caraway Originate From? – The Spice Of The Stone Age

Caraway is easily one of the oldest herbs to be cultivated in recorded history. Seeds excavated from locations of prehistoric communities that existed in southern Europe suggest its use since ancient times. It had remained a mainstay in culinary and medicinal uses among ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

It was also a popular spice in the kitchens of ancient Arabian royalty. Written records show that the seeds were used for making bread and cakes in the 17th century and were known for their use as a digestive aid. In addition, the roots of the caraway plant were considered an effective medicine to relieve an upset stomach.

Besides culinary and medicinal uses, caraway seeds also have a spiritual side in history. In German traditions of the past, caraway seeds were placed beneath children’s beds to cast away evil spirits. People also believed that anything that had caraway in it wouldn’t get stolen.

Caraway has once also been a vital constituent of love potions and to prevent fickleness.

How Is Caraway Used These Days?

Even today, caraway is a staple of European cuisine, and you’ll often find it in cheese, dumplings, goose, and bread in Austrian and German cooking. In some regions, people use it as a natural breath freshener after meals.

Currently, Holland is the world's largest producer of caraway. It's also extensively grown in Canada and the United States. In the States, caraway's most popular use is as an ingredient in rye bread. It's also added to Irish soda bread, together with currants and raisins.
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What Does The Caraway Plant Look Like?

Caraway is an annual herbaceous or biennial plant that grows up to 12 to 30 inches (about 30 to 76 cm) tall. It has a long taproot, giving off several erect stems. The cylindrical, branched stems form rosettes of leaves.

Depending on the variety, inflorescence in the form of umbels forms on flowering stalks appearing during the first or second year of growth.

All parts of the caraway plant are edible, including the roots, foliage, flowers, and fruits. Let’s take a look at each piece separately, observing its appearance and uses.

Roots

Caraway grows a long yellowish taproot with several branching secondary roots. You can grow it as a winter root vegetable to harvest the roots that look very like white carrots. They are usually harvested right after flowering, once the fruits are picked.

The roots are used much like parsnips and carrots, steamed or chopped and added into stews and soups.

Leaves

The finely cut leaves are arranged alternately on the stems, much like the green tops of carrots. They have an earthy flavor and are harvested during the first or second year to use as a herb in salads, cheese, butter, soups, and stews.

Flowers

Caraway produces umbels with small white and pink flowers on flowering stalks towards the end of the growing season, during the first year for annual caraway and second year for biennial caraway. In North African cuisine, people use caraway flowers like asparagus.

Fruits

We primarily grow caraway for its flavorful, aromatic fruits. These are commonly called caraway seeds, and incorrectly so. Light brown to dark brown fruits are slightly curved, with five prominent longitudinal ridges.

When you crush them, they release an appealing aroma and have an earthy taste, like anise. As a result, they're often added as a spice to bread, cheese, and meat dishes.

In What Conditions Does Caraway Grow Best In?

Growing caraway in home gardens is reasonably straightforward, but here are some specifics that will help you nurture a healthy crop.

Temperature

Caraway prefers slightly cooler climates. In temperate regions with longer growing seasons, growers plant it as an annual in winters. In cooler climates, people grow it as biennials because they are very frost tolerant. But, if the ground freezes over in winters, cover the plants with organic mulch, such as straw, to protect the roots.

Soil And Sun

Though the plant will tolerate partial shade, they enjoy a location with full sun. Well-draining sandy soil with pH levels between 6.0 and 7.0 is best for the plant. I also recommend you amend the soil bed with aged compost before planting the seeds.

Water And Fertilizer

While the plants are young, they’ll need regular watering. Maintain even moisture until the seedlings are well established. Once the plants are mature, they’re sufficiently drought tolerant and will thrive with moderate watering.

Amend the soil with well-rotted compost before planting. Then, during the growing season, you can feed the plants once or twice, at adequate intervals, to promote growth.

Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Caraway?

Caraway includes plenty of essential nutrients to benefit from. It’s rich in iron, calcium, zinc, antioxidants, and fibers. Since ancient times, it has been a part of herbal medicine and is still quite popular as a natural remedy. But is caraway safe for everyone, or are there any side effects worth noting? Let’s find out.

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid consuming caraway since there isn’t much information about its safety during these conditions. You should also avoid using caraway oil since there are chances that it may lead to a miscarriage.

Children

Since there isn’t much information about the safety of caraway consumption by kids, it’s best to avoid its use.

People With Allergies

Allergic reactions from the consumption of caraway aren’t common. But, if you’ve been diagnosed with birch pollen or mugwort pollen allergy, you might also be allergic to certain spices, including caraway.

People With Diabetes

Caraway may lower your blood sugar levels. If you’re on medications to control blood sugar levels and consume caraway, you’ll need to track your blood sugar closely.

Pets

The caraway plant is toxic to cats, dogs, and horses. Ingesting the plant can cause poisoning, with symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, drooling, etc.

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