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Caraway

Carum carvi

  • Name also: Persian Cumin, Meridian Fennel
  • Family: Carrot Family – Apiaceae (Umbelliferae)
  • Growing form: Biennial or once-flowering perennial herb.
  • Height: 30–60 cm (12–25 in.). Stem branched, bristly, glabrous, hollow, joints with septa. Fragrance of cumin when crushed.
  • Flower: Corolla regular (actinomorphic), white (occasionally reddish–red), 3–5 mm (0.12–0.2 in.) wide, petals 5, notched, tip recurved. Sepals vestigial–absent. Stamens 5. Pistil of 2 fused carpels, styles 2. Inflorescence a compound umbel, secondary umbels 5–15. Primary and secondary umbels lacking bracts. Stalks on secondary umbels and flowers very different lengths.
  • Leaves: Alternate, stalked, basal leaf-stalk channelled, stem leaf-stalk sheath-like, base with stipule-like lobes. Basal leaf blade long, 2–3 times pinnate; leaflets narrowly lobed. Stem leaf-blade triangular, narrowly lobed.
  • Fruit: Broadly elliptic, with flattish sides, 2-sectioned, narrowly ridged, dark brown, 3–6 mm (0.12–0.24 in.) long schizocarp, highly fragrant when broken.
  • Habitat: Meadows, banks, river banks, roadsides, yards. Also a culinary herb.
  • Flowering time: June–August.

Caraway is thought to be native to the steppe that lies between Europe and Asia, but the borders of its original habitat have been blurred by thousands of years of cultivation and spreading with people. The Ancient Romans and Greeks were already using caraway seeds in the kitchen, although claims about the plant’s medicinal properties were not made until the Middle Ages.

Caraway is especially well known for its fruits, which are commonly known as cumin seeds, and whose oil ducts secrete a deliciously unique and fragrant oil. They are mainly used in baking and flavouring cheese, sausage, sauerkraut and alcoholic drinks like akvavit, traditionally flavoured Scandinavian spirit. Caraway has been used to promote digestion, alleviate toothache and headache, treat chills and experimented with to increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers. The upper part of the root in particular and the young leaf rosette have been used to add flavour and nutrition to soups and stews.

Caraway arrived in Finland early, although in Lapland it is rarer and stays close to inhabited areas. It was most commonly used in the kitchen in the west of Finland and was almost unknown in the east of the country. In the 19th century it was good business to be out collecting the seeds from feral plants, and hundreds of tonnes were collected in the best years – 450 tonnes in 1872. In northern latitudes the cool and light-filled growing season produces fruit with a very strong aroma so caraway from the area is very much in demand. It is easy to cultivate caraway: no seeds are produced in its first year but it usually flowers in its second year and produces an abundance of seed, and it will also self-seed. However, about 10 years ago most caraway was imported to Finland. But times change. In 2011 Finland’s share of the worldwide caraway export was about 30%, mainly exported to Europe, USA and India.

Other species from the same family

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