What is Carum?

O. Parker

Carum is a flowering plant in the Apiaceae family, also knows as the carrot family. Carum carvi is the Latin name for the familiar culinary herb caraway. Caraway seeds are commonly used as a culinary spice. It is native to West Africa and Europe, where it has been used for centuries as a culinary and medicinal herb.

Carum flowers are attractive to wasps.
Carum flowers are attractive to wasps.

The carum plant is a biennial. In the first year, the plant grows 8 inches (about 20 cm) tall and has a feathery appearance much like a young carrot top. In the second year, it grows from 2 feet to 3 feet (about 60 cm to 90 cm) tall on long, slender stalks. At the top of each stalk, the plant produces an umbrella-shaped cluster of small white or pale pink flowers. At the end of the second growing season, the plant dies back to the ground.

Carum should be planted in full sun. Indoor plants will need at least six hours of bright sunlight each day. A soil pH ranging from 6 to 7.5 is ideal, though carum can tolerate a pH range between 4.8 and 7.6. The seeds are collected in the fall and stored until spring, when they are sown in deep, rich soil. In wild situations or when neglected in a garden setting, carum will self-propagate from seed in the second year.

Its shallow root system and non-invasive nature makes caraway a good companion plant in the garden. Carum is particularly compatible with other shallow-rooted crops. The flowers are attractive to wasps; the wasps, in turn, control potentially damaging invasions of aphids. Carum carvi does not grow well when planted near fennel.

The seeds of caraway are crescent shaped. The brown seeds are 1/3-inch long (about 2 mm) and have five distinct ridges along the length. In the late summer and early fall, the seeds begin to ripen and turn dark brown on the stalks. The seeds are harvested while still on the plant to avoid self-seeding and seed loss. The seeds should be spread out on a cloth, paper towel or drying screen.

As a culinary plant, carum carvi has a wide variety of uses. The seeds have a sweet, licorice taste that complements a wide variety of savory and sweet recipes. The roots of second-year plants can be dug and used in place of parsnips or other mild root vegetables. First-year leaves are tender and make a fresh addition to salads, stir fries, and summer soups.

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