By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Fans of caraway seed muffins know all about the seed’sheavenly aroma and slightly licorice flavor. You can grow and harvest your ownseed to use in the spice cupboard, but first you need to choose the varietiesof caraway that will perform best in your garden. There are approximately 30caraway plant species, mostly native to Asia and Mediterranean regions. Carawayplant varieties are used across the globe, but they are usually classed byregion and growth habit.
Carawayhas been used in food and as a medicine for centuries. The commonly cultivatedvariety has several cultivars but most remain unnamed. It is best to group thedifferent kinds of caraway by their growth pattern, either annualor biennial.Technically, there are no listed named varieties. Annual caraway requires alonger growing season, while biennial types of caraway are grown in coolerregions.
Biennial varieties of caraway (Carum carvi f. biennis) need two seasons to produce umbels and the“fruits,” erroneously called seeds. Caraway plant varieties areclassed in the carrot family and produce characteristic umbrella-shapedclusters of flowers. Each of these will develop into a fruit that, when dried,is used in cooking and traditional medicines.
In the first year, biennial plants form rosettes. In thesecond year, a stalk is sent up to bear the umbels. In some cases, a third yearof flowers may develop but repeat sowing annually is necessary for a consistentsupply of seed.
There are different kinds of caraway due to cultivationpreferences and wild hybridization, although none have been named. Of these,annual caraway plant species (Carum carvif. annua) are grown in warm regions and planted in winter. The long growingseason allows the plant to produce the rosette and flowering stalks all in oneyear.
In these areas, the plant will often reseed itself andpurposeful re-sowing is not necessary. Some gardener’s state the flavor ofannual caraway plant varieties is sweeter than that grown in northern regionsas a biennial.
All types of caraway prefer well-draining, humic rich soilin full sun. Caraway is slow to germinate and can take up to three weeks tosprout. It is best to plant directly outdoors rather than to transplant. Thisis to avoid disturbing its taproot, which can interrupt establishment.
Provided soil is fertile, no supplemental food is necessary.Keep soil somewhat moist. You can lightly harvest the leaves for salads and usethe taproot after the fruit is harvested.
As seed heads begin to dry, tie a permeable sack around theumbels to preserve the fruits. Separate the chaff and dry seeds for storage ina cool, dark location.
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True citronella plant is a clumping grass similar to lemongrass. It’s a deep green color, often with a pink or purple hue at the base of the leaves.
There is another plant sold as citronella, but it is actually a scented geranium, Pelargonium citrosum.
This has broad, serrated leaves and sometimes is sold as “mosquito plant,” but it’s citronella scented only. You can’t use it to make citronella essential oil.
Ceylon citronella, Cymbopogon nardus, is the variety most often found in home gardens and used to make essential oil. It’s great as an ornamental grass or repelling pests in the garden. It gets about 3 feet tall.
Although Java citronella, Cymbopogon winterianus, probably originated around Sri Lanka as well, at some point, it was made popular in Indonesia.
This variety has broader leaves than Ceylon and grows faster. It gets about 4 feet tall.
Cymbopogon citratus is a member of the citronella family that we know as lemongrass. It’s is popular in cooking, can also be used to repel mosquitos and for its essential oil. It gets about 4 feet tall.
Cymbopogon flexuosus is native to India, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. This is the lemongrass typically used to flavor food and to add scent to cosmetics. It gets up to 6 feet tall and spreads up to 3 feet.
Cymbopogon martini has been gathered in the wild and used for its essential oil since antiquity and is now cultivated for the same reason. There are studies showing some promise for using palmarosa medicinally on the skin.