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Small Cardamom or True Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is a member of the Ginger family (Zingiberaceae). The seeds from the fruit capsules, which are harvested before they are fully ripe, constitute the spice known as cardamom. The Cardamom plant grows 2 to 5.5 m in height. It grows wild in the monsoon forests of South India and Sri Lanka. It is cultivated extensively in these countries, as well as in Guatemala and elsewhere.

Use of cardamom fruits for medicinal and culinary purposes dates back at least to the second century BCE. Cardamom is used in rice, vegetable, and meat dishes. In Arab countries and India, cardamom is often used to flavor coffee and tea. In Scandinavia, as well as in Germany and Russia, it is used to flavor cakes, pastries, and sausages. It is popular in Indian and South Asian cooking and used to make spice blends, such as curries and garam masala. The essential oil is used as a food flavoring, in perfumery, and for flavoring liqueurs. Cardamom is the third most expensive spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla. It still grows in scattered wild populations in the southern Indian forests of the Western Ghats. Because of the sensitivity of Cardamom to wind, drought, and water-logging, optimum yield is obtained on warm (10 to 35 C) and humid (with >1500 mm of well-distributed rainfall) mountain slopes at 600 to 1500 m elevation under a canopy of evergreen trees. Cardamom has been commercially cultivated in the Western Ghats for 150 years and India has had a virtual trade monopoly until recently. Facilitating trade in cardamom and black pepper was the primary motivation for establishing the sea route from Europe to the Far East. Today, the largest producers of true cardamom are Guatemala and India, but smaller producers include Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, El Salvador, Laos, and Vietnam. Cheaper true cardamom substitutes (Amomum spp. and Aframomum spp.) are grown and used in some Asian countries. India and Saudi Arabia consume more than half of the world's total cardamom production.

Kuriakose et al. (2009) compared wild and cultivated populations of Cardamom in southern India. They found that the number of branches, number of inflorescences, total number of flowers per clump, number of flowers that open each day, duration of flowering, length of the flower, and amount of nectar per flower were significantly greater in cultivated Cardamom. The primary pollinators of wild Cardamom were solitary bees, Megachile sp. and two species of Amegilla. Cultivated Cardamom, however, was pollinated mainly by the social bees Apis dorsata, A. cerana and Trigona iridipennis (and, to a lesser extent, the bee Xylocopa verticalis and two birds, the Purple Sunbird [Cinnyris asiaticus] and Little Spiderhunter [Arachnothera longirostra]). Although plant domestication often results in a transition from self-incompatibility to self-compatibility, both wild and cultivated Cardamom plants were self-compatible and there was no evidence of reproductive barriers between wild and cultivated plants, although they are geographically isolated. Kuriakose et al. suggested that the observed shift in pollinators with domestication may be due to the availability of a large number of flowers for prolonged periods in cultivated Cardamom that can attract and sustain social bees rather than due to co-evolution of the flowers and pollinators.

The cultivation of Cardamom as an understory crop using current growing practices radically changes the forest ecosystem in ways that persist for many years even after Cardamom cultivation is abandoned, presenting significant conservation concerns and challenges, as has been seen in India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, and Tanzania. (Reyes et al. 2006; Dhakal et al. 2012)

(Vaughan and Geissler 1997; Reyes et al. 2006; Dhakal et al. 2012)


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