By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Caraway is a flavorful and aromatic herb. The caraway seed is the most used part of the plant and can be used in baking, soups, stews, and other foods but all parts of the plant are edible. Growing caraway seeds requires some patience, as the caraway plant is a biennial and doesn’t do more than grow vegetatively in the first season. The caraway plant resembles a carrot and sets seed in its second year.
The caraway plant (Carum carvi) is an herbaceous biennial that will mature to 30 inches (75 cm.) tall. The plant is only about 8 inches (20 cm.) tall in the first season with carrot-like foliage and a long taproot. By the second year, the plant will triple in size and the foliage becomes more feathery with stout stems. Tiny white flowers appear on the umbrels, which begin in May and last until the end of summer. The spent flowers yield small hard brown seeds– the caraway spice that is an important part of many regional cuisines.
Caraway spice is an under-used and infrequently grown plant in most herb gardens. It is native to Europe and Western Asia where it thrives in full sun and well drained soil with pH ranges of 6.5 to 7.0. It isn’t a good plant for hot, humid climates and prefers cool temperate zones. Sow the seeds 1/2-inch (1.25 cm.) deep in fall or spring.
Once seed germinates, thin the caraway plant to 8 to 12 inches (20-30 cm.) apart. In colder climates, mulch the roots of the plant heavily with straw or organic mulch, which will add nutrients to the soil.
Germination is slow and sporadic when growing caraway seeds, and the herb may be intercropped to help prevent weeds and manage soil conditions.
Very little cultivation is required in caraway growing, but adequate moisture is an important component in the first year. The foliage of caraway plants need to be kept dry during irrigation, so a drip hose is an excellent way to keep the soil moisture level up.
Cut the plant back in the fall as it will die back and re-sprout in spring. Caraway has few pests or disease problems. Plant a second crop a year after the first for consistent production.
Caraway growing provides you with a fresh source of spice that is adaptable and stores well. All parts of the caraway plant are edible. Harvest the leaves in the first or second years to add flavor to salads. When the plant has produced seed, dig up the taproot and use it as you would any root vegetable. The seeds are harvested when they turn a rich deep brown color. Cut the umbels off the plant and put them in a paper bag. Let them dry in an open bag for a few days and then shake the bag to remove the caraway spice.
Herb gardens are more complete when you grow caraway and add the characteristic flavor to your spice rack.
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Binomial Name: Carum carvi
Most commonly found in the cuisines of Eastern Europe, Caraway seeds are often added to breads, cakes, soups, cheeses, cabbages and other dishes to add a distinct and pungent flavor. It has been used for thousands of years, and by some accounts is the oldest known condiment. Interestingly, this seed was once a key ingredient in love potions as it was once said that anything containing Caraway could not be stolen.
Annual or Biennial (zones 3-9)
Caraway is in the same family as Angelica, Carrot, Dill and others and will show tiny white, the umbel- type flowers common to this family. Can grow to approximately 2' tall.
Caraway prefers full sun to partial shade, and should be grown in a location with light or sandy well-drained soil. Water moderately.
If starting in cooler climes (approximately zones 6 and lower), Caraway is best started indoors or in a greenhouse 4-6 week prior to the last average frost of the spring. Keep soil well-moistened while germination occurs moderate slightly once seedling has broken through surface of soil. Transplant outdoors after the last frost, ideally on an overcast day.
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The leaves can be harvested once the plant is well established and reached a height of a 6" or more. Cut stem near base of plant and carefully strip leaves into a bowl other container.
The seeds can be harvested late in the summer or early fall, once they have ripened and are completely dry. Dry seed head can be brittle, so collect over a bowl, basket, bag or other container to collect all seeds. Winnow through a fan or over a screen to separate seeds from chaff. Store in a sealed container in a dry, cool location out of direct sunlight for optimum life.
Caraway, also known as Persian Cumin or Meridian Fennel, is part of the carrot family and similar in appearance too. It has aromatic leaves and tasty seeds which are used in a wide range of European style dishes, the seeds can also be chewed to relieve indigestion. The caraway plant will grow up to approximately 60cm.
Site and Soil
Well drained soil rich in organic matter, Full sun or warm area with light shade
Plant to Harvest Time
Where To Grow
Caraway needs a well drained soil with rich organic matter and added sand. It performs best in warmer areas with full sunlight.
Sow directly into a well drained soil and lightly cover with a thin layer of soil. This thin layer, (about 0.5 - 1cm), should include your rich compost for best results. Keep about 15 to 20 cm room between plants.
After about 8-12 days the seedlings should begin to surface, immediately surround with mulch, a good compost or rotted manure will suffice. Use a liquid fertilizer a couple of times during the growing months.
Caraway will grow very well in a container, provided it is placed in a bright, sunny location. Use a larger container with a regular potting soil, you will need to fertilize every few weeks and water regularly.
Caraway is a herb that’s best known for its aromatic seeds. Caraway is often grown for its thin, crescent-shaped seeds but all parts of the caraway plant are edible—leaves, stems, seeds, and roots. It is a biennial herb best known for aromatic fruit that is called a seed, and used as a spice. Its flavor is distinctly pungent, with anise and licorice undertones. The caraway seed is popular in rye bread. And while the seeds are popular, the similarly fragrant leaves as well as the roots are edible.
Caraway grows well with most vegetables. It does not grow well near fennel. It is a good companion to peas. Caraway flowers attract beneficial insects including predatory wasps that attack tomato hornworms. Caraway is an aromatic member of the Umbelliferae family that attracts beneficial insects like bees and hoverflies to its blossoms, helping to control insect pests such as aphids and caterpillars. Consider companion planting with vegetables, especially peas. As a legume, peas function as “nitrogen fixer,” adding essential nitrogen to the soil if you plow them under at season’s end.
Planting: Caraway thrives in full sun and well drained soil. Does best in full sun. Grows best with 6-8 hours sun, but partial sun location works well also.
Watering: Keep well water in the summer months. Basil needs well-drained soil.
Fertilizer: Plant in a well-drained soil enriched with compost, aged manure, or other organic materials. Fertilize after seedlings are about 4 inches.
Days to Maturity: Can harvest leaves around 60-90 days. Seedlings emerge in 14-21 days.
Size: Caraway can grow to about 24″‘ tall. Plant can become very bushy and spread.
Harvesting: In the first year, it produces roots and foliage, and dies to the ground at season’s end. In the second, the foliage becomes bushy, and may reach beyond 2′. It produces an “umbel” (think umbrella) arrangement of tiny pink or white florets that make up a flat-topped flower head. At season’s end, the seeds brown and are ready for harvesting. If it is not harvested, the seed falls and remains dormant until it germinates the following spring.
Tips: In warmer regions, you may raise Caraway as an annual. When planted in late fall, it flowers and sets fruit the following spring. Caraway has long roots that can help break down and condition heavy soils which makes it generally a good companion for any shallow rooted plants. Caraway is a sound garden investment. It not only provides you with delicious, aromatic seed, it contributes to the biological control of undesirable insects, which is a key component of integrated pest management systems.
Cooking with Caraway:Toasted caraway seeds are a flavorful addition to loaves of bread and salads, but the earthy fennel and anise taste is mild until the seed is cooked or dry roasted.