Latin Names: Elletaria cardamomum / Amomum cardamomum

Other Names: Hamama (Arabic);  Bai Kuo (Chinese); Amomon (Greek); Elaichi (Hindi); Hil / Heel (Persian); Ela (Sanskrit); Cardamomo (Spanish)

Taxonomy: Vegetable Kingdom, Zingiberaceae (Ginger) family

Part Used: seed pods and seeds; the aromatic essential oil

Basic Qualities: Hot 2, Dry 2 (Avicenna)

Other Qualities: light, fresh, penetrating, opening, aromatic

Taste: sweet, pungent, aromatic

Humoral Dynamics: Cardamom, with its warming and drying qualities, focuses its humoral activities on excess dampness and phlegm, especially that residing in the stomach and digestive tract.  Its aromatic essential oils, with their fragrant, antiseptic properties, are excellent for concocting, transforming and dissolving turbid dampness and phlegm that has been generated by residues of poorly digested food, which then begins to ferment and putrefy in the gut.  Relieving the burden of excess phlegm and dampness that is bogging down the digestion naturally has the effect of kindling and restoring the appetite and the digestive fire, since Fire is the polar opposite of Water, or dampness.  Secondarily, Cardamom’s phlegm dissolving properties also extend to the lungs and respiratory tract, especially the head, sinuses and upper respiratory tract.  Chinese herbalists have a good phrase that sums up the humoral activities of Cardamom: “dissolve turbid dampness with a fragrant odor”.  Another way that Cardamom keeps excess phlegm and dampness in check is by remedying a cold liver, according to Avicenna.  Since the liver is the organ that generates the Four Humors, and excess phlegm tends to be generated if its metabolic fire is cold or deficient, warming the liver overcomes this tendency.  Avicenna states that Cardamom has a dissolving and attenuating effect not only on phlegm, but also on the blood as well, claiming that it stimulates the female menses.  This is interesting, because Cardamom is a member of the Zingiberaceae or Ginger family, and Ginger is also a blood thinner.  Furthermore, Avicenna also says that Cardamom ripens or matures corrupt humors, and says it will ripen hot swellings. 

Tropism: The stomach and digestive tract; the liver, spleen and auxiliary organs of digestion; the lungs and upper respiratory tract; the kidneys and urinary tract.

Constituents and Pharmacology: Trace waxes; volatile essential oil consisting of alpha-terpinyl acetate, 1,8-cineole, linalyl acetate, limonene, linalool, terpinolene and myricene.  It also contains various minerals, including Mg, Si, P, S, Cl, K, Ca, Mn, Fe, Cu and Zn.

Medicinal Properties: antifungal, antiseptic, aromatic, carminatative, expectorant, stomachic, tonic

Cautions and Contraindications: Cautions and Contraindications: Generally none known, but may aggravate irritation of the GI and respiratory mucosa in excess.

Medicinal Uses: As a stomachic or stomach tonic to stimulate the appetite and digestion, and kindle the digestive fire.  As a breath freshener.  To reduce excess dampness and turbidity in the GI tract, and secondarily in the lungs and respiratory tract, and then systemically as well.

Other Uses: Cardamom is most commonly used as an aromatic spice in cuisine; it is used mainly to enhance the flavor and digestibility of sweet, rich or starchy food.  Cardamom is also used in the perfume, incense and fragrance industry.

Preparation and Dosage: If you are to powder Cardamom, it is best to remove the outer husk before doing so, because the outer husk of many varieties of Cardamom will irritate the gastric mucosa if ground or powdered.  The technical term for Cardamom that has already had the outer husk removed is decorticated Cardamom.  And since it is only the inner seeds that contain the active ingredients, which are the aromatic essential oils, and not the outer husk, Cardamom that has been decorticated is also more concentrated and potent.  Dosage wise, Cardamom, in its powder form, is slightly more potent than many of the milder herbs, but not unduly so.  A quarter to a half a teaspoon of the powder will suffice as a dose.  The outer husk can be included, and the pods, with both husk and seed, can simply be crushed to open the pod and expose the seeds when using Cardamom in herbal tea formulas or when flavoring other teas with Cardamom.  When using Cardamom as an ingredient in herbal teas, take care not to boil the tea excessively, as this will dissipate the volatile essential oils; it may be better to grind or powder the formula and then simply steep it in boiling water for a few minutes before straining and drinking, so as not to lose the volatile constituents.  In herbal formulas, Cardamom can be used in doses ranging anywhere from equal parts to one half the dosage of the other herbal ingredients, with two thirds to three quarters the dose being a happy medium.  All in all, Cardamom has a fairly low toxicity, even though it may not be the mildest of herbs, and is easily tolerated by the human organism.  The only exception to this is the essential oil: do not exceed 3 to 5 drops per dose.  Alcoholic tinctures of Cardamom can be made, but in my experience, they are quite rare; nevertheless, alcohol, with its volatile properties, acts as a synergistic medium for the volatile, aromatic essential oils of Cardamom.`

Herbal Formulation: Cardamoms, of various kinds, have long been perennial favorites in herbal formulas to strengthen and harmonize the stomach and digestion, because that’s basically what Cardamom does.  Cardamom partners well with other herbs of a similarly sweet and pungent nature to stimulate and kindle the digestive fire, and to handle various digestive complaints.  Cardamom plays an important role in Indian Chai spices, where it is used with Cinnamon, Ginger, Fennel, Cloves and Black Pepper, or in European Mulling spices, where it is used with Cinnamon, Ginger, Nutmeg, and Allspice.  Cardamom, and Mulling spices, are most commonly used to enhance the flavor and digestibility of sweet, starchy or rich foods, like the eggnog, cider and fruit cake that is so commonly served around the holiday season.

Classic Combinations: With Ginseng (Panax ginseng) as a tonic for the stomach and digestion; it’s like putting tonic “rocket fuel” behind the stomachic properties of Cardamom.  With Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) and Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) as an aromatic, warming tonic for the stomach and digestion, and to kindle the digestive fire.  This combo is called the “Three Aromatics” in Ayurvedic Medicine, and can be used as a tonic in type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome presenting with a slow or sluggish stomach and digestion.  With Ginger (Zingiber officinale) to stimulate the stomach and digestion, and also to allay nausea and vomiting.  With Ginger (Zingiber officinale), Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and Peppermint (Mentha piperita) as a Unani formula to improve the stomach and digestion; take in powder form, using the decorticated Cardamom only.  With Juniper berries (Juniperus comunis) to stimulate the stomach and digestion, to dredge the liver and enhance its patency, and to stimulate the kidneys and help lower blood sugar.  Juniper berries can also be added to the Three Aromatics formula given above.

Description: Cardamom and its close botanical cousins have been used in herbal medicine and fine cuisine for centuries, even millennia, with Dioscorides giving a detailed description of it in his famous herbal Materia Medica.  Although Cardamom is mostly differentiated into Greater Cardamom (Amomum cardamomum) and Lesser Cardamom (Elletaria cardamomum),many other varieties of Cardamom actually exist, with each having its own particular therapeutic and medicinal uses.  The Lesser Cardamom is by far the most available and commonly used, and is the kind most commonly seen on the spice racks of supermarkets; it has a green husk, and is called Lesser because its pods are thinner and smaller in size.  The Greater Cardamom, on the other hand, has a thick brown husk that is larger in size, and of a rather smoky flavor; it is most often encountered in the Indian cuisine served in Indian restaurants and buffets.

Improving and optimizing stomach and digestive function is a key focus of herbal medicine, and herbalists have developed this into a fine art.  Pharmaceutical drugs, on the other hand, have little to offer in this regard, and many pharmaceutical medications actually have to be taken with food, since they would hurt the stomach and digestive function if taken by themselves.  Most herbs, on the other hand, are stomach and digestion friendly.  Most natural healing systems assign a central place to the stomach and digestive function, and see the stomach as being the main initial portal or gateway through which all forms of food and drink, or nourishment, enter the body; and so, your health is only as good as your stomach and digestion, since the whole body is built and nourished from there.  Unani Medicine says that all manner of pernicious diseases start in the stomach, and when you think of it, if the stomach, the initial “work horse” of digestion, doesn’t do its job right, nothing else in the whole digestive process will be quite right, either, with health problems then developing further on down the line.

Enter Cardamom and its close botanical relatives; in the herbal kingdom, they are the true masters of healing, fine tuning and optimizing the stomach and its digestive functioning, and kindling the digestive fire.  The aromatic essential oils they contain stimulate the stomach, appetite and digestion, and also have an antiseptic effect that discourages the growth of harmful yeast and putrefactive bacteria in the gut.  In terms of the Four Humors, Cardamom is able to strengthen digestion and stimulate the digestive fire mainly by dissolving and concocting turbid phlegm and dampness that is generated in the GI tract though the faulty or incomplete digestion of food; these harmful residues of turbid phlegm and dampness then become food for yeasts, fungi and putrefactive bacteria in the gut.  Since Fire, and the digestive fire, is the polar opposite of Water, manifesting as turbid phlegm and dampness, Cardamoms, by doing an anti-Phlegmatic and antiseptic “house cleaning” of the stomach and GI tract, lift the burden of toxins and corrupt humors that are oppressing the stomach and its digestive function, thereby restoring it to its normal, healthy state.  Chinese herbalists call this process “dissolving turbid dampness with a fragrant odor”.

The properties of Cardamom’s volatile aromatic principles to dissolve and dry off excessive or aggravated phlegm and dampness extend far beyond the digestive tract, and from there, reach out to affect other organ systems of the body, like the lungs and upper respiratory tract, dissolving excess phlegm and dampness there as well.  And finally, Cardamom’s antiseptic essential oils also cleanse the kidneys and urinary tract on their way out of the body, giving this organ system a good house cleaning as well, as the excess phlegm and dampness is transformed into water, and is then excreted from the body through the urine.  The aromatic principles of Cardamom are so exquisite, powerful and penetrating that they verge on what Chinese herbal medicine would call an herb that opens the orifices, with its aromatic principles even being able to dissolve fine, subtle forms of phlegm in the upper respiratory tract, the head and sinuses, and even the eyes,nose and other sensory orifices.  The aromatic principles of Cardamom can also work synergistically with other ingredients in herbal formulas, enhancing their ability to circulate and penetrate to the desired sites in the body where they are most needed.  Alcohol, as a volatile, aromatic medium in its own right, can synergistically enhance the aromatic properties of Cardamom.  The essential oil of Cardamom also works wonders in aromatherapy with its fresh, clean aroma, which energizes the whole body and mind.

Avicenna, in the Materia Medica section of his Canon of Medicine, gives some unique and distinctive healing virtues and medicinal uses for Cardamom.  Digestively speaking, he says it is good for the stomach and a cold liver, and also stops vomiting.  For nausea and vomiting, Cardamom is given with the water of Mastic and Pomegranate juice.  Although Cardamom produces heaviness, headache and sleep, Avicenna writes, it is good in remedying headache that is due to intoxication of sleep inducing drugs if rubbed into the forehead.  The boiled down form of Cardamom, writes Avicenna, has many uses: It can be applied to the eyes with warmth and moisture to treat hot conjunctivitis in order to relieve the pain.  It can also be taken internally for gout, as well as to remove obstructions from the liver.  Cardamom is a diuretic, and also stimulates menstruation, says Avicenna.  Avicenna states that Cardamom is useful for ripening hot swellings, but he is unclear as to whether the internal or topical use of Cardamom is for this purpose.  Rubbed on the skin or mucous membranes, it does have a mild counterirritant effect. 

In Ayurvedic Medicine, Cardamom stimulates the Agni or digestive fire; it is both a deepan, or an herb that kindles the digestive fire, as well as a pachan, or herb that digests, concocts and transforms morbid humors and residues of poorly digested food. The anti-phlegmatic action of Cardamom works to relieve accumulations of excess phlegm in the stomach as well as the lungs and respiratory tract, being useful for asthma, cough, wheezing and sore throat as well.  Cardamom is also called anuloman, having a beneficial regulating and harmonizing effect on the vital airs, or the flow of the Natural Force, in balancing and harmonizing the workings of the entire digestive process.  Cardamom is also recommended for painful, burning urination, probably due to its antiseptic essential oils, and is also good for treating a disordered flow of the Vital Force in the pelvic area, which can manifest as urinary colic. 

Related Species: There are a wide variety of different Cardamoms used in the herbal healing traditions of different cultures.  What is a Cardamom?  Generically speaking, it is a fruit pod of various species of plants in the Zingiberaceae or Ginger family that contains a whole multitude of fragrant seeds; common genus names for various Cardamoms include Alpinia, Amomum, and Elletaria.  Therapeutically speaking, the healing effects of Cardamom center around the stomach and digestive organs, and their ability to dissolve and concoct turbid or excessive phlegm and dampness.  In addition to these main therapeutic themes and actions, different types of Cardamoms have different auxiliary therapeutic actions and uses.  So, let’s take a look at some of the other kinds of Cardamoms used in herbal medicine, especially Chinese Medicine:

Bastard Cardamom (Amomum villosum) – Called Sha Ren or “Sand Kernels”  in Chinese herbal medicine, this variety of Cardamom is colloquially called “Bastard Cardamom” because, while being a close relative of the Greater Cardamom, Amomum cardamomum, its pods are quite a bit smaller than those of the latter.  The fragrance of Sha Ren is similar to that of Cardamom, but with a sharper scent reminiscent of pine and evergreens.  In addition to being a tonic for the stomach and digestion, and transforming turbid dampness with a fragrant odor, Sha Ren is also used as a protective herb in pregnancy to stabilize a restless foetus and prevent miscarriage, as well as to stop digestive reflux and regurgitations.  Sha Ren is most commonly used in combination with Costus Root (Radix Aucklandiae / Saussureae), which is called Mu Xiang, or “Wood Fragrance / Wood Incense” in Chinese herbal medicine.  Together these herbs are a powerful combo for treating colic, distension, discomfort and reflux in the stomach and digestive tract.  This duo also has a beneficial restorative effect on cultivating healthy bacterial flora in the intestines and GI tract. 

Black Cardamom (Fructus Alpiniae oxyphyllae) – Called Yi Zhi Ren in Chinese herbal medicine, Black Cardamom divides its therapeutic actions and benefits pretty much equally between the digestive and urinary systems.  Digestively speaking, Black Cardamom treats chronic diarrhea and cold abdominal pain caused by excess cold in the GI tract, as well as a deficiency of the metabolic and digestive fires of the stomach and spleen.  In the urinary system, Black Cardamom treats excessive or copious urination, urinary dribbling and incontinence and spermatorrhea due to kidney Yang and vital essence deficiency, and a weakness of the Life Gate Fire.  Of all the varieties of Cardamom used in Chinese herbal medicine, Black Cardamom, or Yi Zhi Ren, is considered to be the most heating and stimulating in nature.  Because Black Cardamom is so strongly heating in nature, it is contraindicated for anyone with heat, fire or inflammatory signs or symptoms present, either acute or chronic.  Black Cardamom is also used to treat irregular uterine bleeding in women.  Because Black Cardamom is such a heating and potent herb, it is never used alone, but always in combination with other tonic herbs to support and moderate its action.  Although the true Black Cardamom used in Chinese herbal medicine, Yi Zhi Ren, is a close botanical relative to Galangal, or the hot, red variety of Ginger used in Thai cuisine, being of the genus Alpinia, other varieties of Cardamom, of the genus Amomum, which are nearly identical to the Greater Cardamom (Amomum cardamomum), save for the darker color of their husk, have also been called Black Cardamom.

Cluster Cardamom (Fructus Amomi rotundus) – This is probably Chinese herbal medicine’s closest equivalent to the common Lesser Cardamom or “Green Cardamom” sold on the spice shelves of American supermarkets; you could call it “White Cardamom”, because the husks are white or cream colored.  The Chinese call it Bai Dou Kou, with the initial “Bai” meaning, “White”.  Therapeutically speaking, this White Cardamom of Chinese herbal medicine is a very close equivalent to the common Lesser or Green Cardamom as well; it aromatically transforms dampness and turbidity, strengthens the stomach, dispels cold in the digestive organs of the middle burner or epigastric cavity, and relieves nausea and vomiting.  This is the variety of Cardamom that is most commonly used in combination with Ginseng (Panax ginseng) as tonic “rocket fuel” behind it, in addition to being used with other major stomachic and carminative herbs like Tangerine peel, Magnolia bark, and Atractylodes rhizome (both white and blue).  Being quite drying in nature, Cluster Cardamom is contraindicated for those with a deficiency of Yin / Body Fluids / Phlegmatic Humor as well as Blood, or the Sanguine Humor.

Grains of Paradise (Aframomum melegueta) – Called Melegueta Pepper or Alligator Pepper, this is a hot, spicy, pepper-like spice used in African cuisine.  Although its flavor is more like pepper, its genus name Aframomum – for the “African Amomum” or Cardamom, I suppose – betrays its close botanical relationship with Cardamom.  Not surprisingly, it is also a member of the Ginger family.  From the internet research I’ve done, it seems like the Grains of Paradise are used much more as a culinary spice than as a medicinal herb. 

There quite a few other varieties of Cardamom or Cardamom-like fruits or fruit pods of the Ginger family that are used in Chinese herbal medicine, but these are the most important ones.  My sincere thanks to my old acupuncture school classmate Joel Penner, OMD, acupuncturist and Doctor of Oriental Medicine and his website, American Dragon, for the technical data on the various varieties of Cardamom used in Chinese herbal medicine that I have presented here.

Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice by Sebastian Pole, pp. 151 – 152. @2006 by Elsevier Ltd. 
The Canon of Medicine, Vol. 2: Natural Pharmaceuticals by Avicenna, translated and compiled by Laleh Bakhtiar, pp. 197 – 202.  @2012 by Laleh Bakhtiar.  Published by Kazi Publications, Chicago, IL, USA.

DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.