Tiny brown banana-shaped caraway seeds, believe it or not, are actually the fruits of this feathery plant. Their flavor resembles that of fennel or anise, but with a sweeter, smokier, often spicier taste.
Caraway isn't grown just for its see—um, we mean... fruits. The edible leaves and roots also contribute to a wide variety of recipes, and the plant even has a few medicinal benefits.
Resembling wild carrot or Queen Anne's Lace, caraway (Carum carvi) is a member of the Apiaceae family. Its cousins include carrot, parsley, fennel, coriander, and dill among a few thousand others. While caraway seeds (Argh! Fruits!) could substitute for fennel or anise in a pinch, the latter stands alone in its flavor and deserves its own place in your spice rack.
Origins & History
It's difficult to determine where caraway first lost its gills and climbed out of the ancient seas, but as far back as herbal historians can tell, it's native across Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, and there's evidence that caraway was a part of the diet of Mesolithic-era cave-dwellers.
According to modern culinary nerds, the best and most consistent commercially-produced caraway comes from Holland. It's grown on a smaller commercial scale in other parts of Europe, the UK, and Morocco.
Where it Grows in North America
Having escaped from kitchen gardens, caraway is naturalized across the northern US and all the Canadian provinces. It's cultivated as a biennial in USDA zones 3-9, meaning that it usually doesn't flower (and therefore go to seed/fruit/whatever) until its second growing season. Are you an impatient gardener? Fall-seeding caraway often results in flowers and a fruit crop in its first full season.
Caraway in the Garden
This herbaceous plant will grow 18" to 48" tall on long, solid, ribbed upright stems. Towards the top of the plant, the stalk branches into umbrels of flower clusters approximately two inches across. Each umbel is further divided into smaller umbellets consisting of about 20 tiny white to pale pink five-petaled flowers.
Feral flower aficionados and foraging fans can tell the difference between Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) and caraway flowers with a close inspection of the plant's petals. Those that are notched at the bottom indicate the latter. Are your eyes wrecked from squinting at the text on too many seed packets? Unlike Queen Anne's Lace, caraway's stems are hairless, so you can also tell the difference by touch.
The fine, needle-like leaves are bright green, lending a delicate texture to your landscape. The entire plant is aromatic, drawing the attention of a variety of pollinating insects.
Once the plants are pollinated, the fruits develop at the base of each flower, eventually splitting into two ribbed crescents we recognize as "seeds".
Caraway is easy to grow. It germinates best when daytime temperatures reach an average of 70°F, and we recommend fall seeding in order to enjoy blooms in its first full growing season.
Choosing the right site: Caraway prefers well-drained, fertile soil that leans toward the sandy side. It thrives best in soil with a pH between 5.8 to 7.5. Amend compacted and claylike soils with aged compost.
Planting Instructions: Caraway does not transplant well, but if you are that impatient gardener who insists on an early start indoors, be sure to use deep peat pots. Sow early starts 4-6 weeks before the average last frost.
For outdoor spring planting, you'll want to get started as soon as your frost calendar gives the "all clear". Pick a spot in full sun and break up any clumps and clods in the soil. Caraway requires sunlight to germinate, so be sure not to plant seeds more than 1/8" below the surface.
Space seeds 8"-16" apart, and gently water the planting site with a spray bottle or very fine hose attachment. Germination typically occurs in 7-21 days, depending upon temperatures. Be sure keep seedlings watered until they're established, but don't overdo it.
Caraway is an easy self-seeder, so even though parent plants only last a couple years, successive generations will keep your cupboard well-stocked and your garden graced with soft, graceful texture and deliciously sweet aroma.
Caraway: The Upstanding Member of the Garden Community
- Caraway attracts beneficial, tiny wasps and flies known to prey upon harmful insect pests. Its fragrance tends to repel the "villains" from itself and its neighboring plants.
- Caraway does not do well planted alongside dill or fennel, which has been known to kill caraway.
- The deep taproot of this herb is often used to break up compacted earth and, when the frost-killed plants are left to compost, leave deep-harvested mineral nutrients on the top layers of the soil.
- The deep root structure prevents caraway from competing with shallow-rooted plants.
- Strawberries produce more flavor and sweetness when planted near caraway.
- Peas and caraway both thrive when planted together.
- According to folklore, caraway repels witches. If your garden has a witch infestation, or you've noticed Daniel Radcliffe skulking among your pumpkins, then hurrah! Problem solved!
Pests and Diseases
Unfortunately, and in spite of its penchant for repelling many pests while attracting pest predators, caraway and its delicate relatives are susceptible to infestation when grown as a monoculture for commercial production. We recommend reseeding caraway in new spots in your garden after harvesting this biennial crop and interplanting with other species. Rotation interrupts the life cycle of most insect and microbial pests.
Yellows Disease, a phytoplasma disease spread by leafhoppers, is particularly damaging to caraway. Diagnosis requires laboratory juju, but to be safe, cull and destroy any yellowing, atrophied-looking plants. (Never add diseased plants to your composting pile.)
How to Harvest and Store Caraway
Caraway usually flowers by mid-June for a late-summer fruit and taproot harvest. Pick leaves anytime you need them during the growing season.
After the flowers have wilted and gone to seed (FRUIT! JEEZ ALREADY!), dig out the plant—taproot and all. Cut the stem from the top of the root. Store the taproot as you would other "baby" root vegetables, taking care not to bruise the skin when you clean off any excess dirt.
Loosely tie cheesecloth around the flower heads, and hang them by the stem in a well-ventilated, warm spot. After the fruits have dried, shake them into the cloth.
When they're dry enough to crumble, keep the leaves in an airtight container. Fresh leaves are always best, and they'll stay that way for a few days in the refrigerator, but they don't freeze well.
The oils within the fruits will go rancid after a few months, so it's best to store caraway fruits in the refrigerator or freezer until you're ready to use them.
Oils extracted from caraway fruits contain carvone and limonene, active ingredients in mouthwash. Caraway extracts are also reportedly useful for managing other ailments, including:
- Eye infections
- Gastric issues
- Flavoring for pediatric remedies
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Caraway oil is commonly used in soaps, lotions, and shampoos, thanks to its lovely fragrance.
It isn't exactly a medicinal use, but we think it's interesting to note that superstitious folk believed that when caraway was sprinkled on belongings, it would protect them from theft or loss. It might be this line of reasoning that gave caraway the reputation as a love potion.
Northern Europeans and Scandinavians love caraway. You can't bake traditional rye bread without it, and you need serious baked goods to soak up your favorite caraway-flavored alcoholic beverages. Boozehounds as far back as medieval times have created various cordials using caraway as an ingredient, though the digestif liqueur Kümmel is the most popular product in modern-day use.
- When used in the kitchen, caraway fruits should be "bruised" or lightly crushed to release their flavor and aroma, or ground into a powder.
- Scandinavians use caraway much as Latin cultures use polenta, and across Europe caraway is frequently used to season cheese.
- In addition to rye bread, caraway is included in many European sweet and savory baked goods.
- Caraway fruit is frequently included with sauerkraut, coleslaw, and other cabbage dishes, likely as much to prevent flatulence as well as to add flavor. It's also a regular in pea soup recipes.
- Are you into pickling? We mean, aside from drinking too much Kümmel? Caraway is among the most-favored pickling spices.
- Caraway fruits are a great addition to pork sausage recipes, meat rubs, and marinades.
- Caraway taproots are a smaller but sweeter alternative to parsnips and can be used in the same way. Try them steamed or in stews, mashed with potatoes, or roasted with a little butter or olive oil.
- Caraway leaves add an interesting flavor to both green and fruit salads.
- Powdered caraway fruit pairs well with baked apples and applesauce.
Tip: Toast caraway seeds in a dry skillet over medium to high heat for 2-3 minutes until you can smell the aroma.
Sourcing Your Caraway Fruits
Are you interested in expanding your spice collection? Have you turned your garage into a craft distillery? Even if you're simply trying to keep your loved ones from adding to climate change after you host a St. Patrick's Day feast or attend this year's Oktoberfest, caraway is hardly a one-trick pony. Why not save a spot in your garden for this useful herb?
The high oil content of caraway fruits means one should be sure to purchase them fresh from a reputable source. We at Seed Needs (and yes, we mean seeds this time) select our stock from the best growers, who harvest only from the healthiest, most productive and disease-resistant plants.
Caraway Herb Seeds
Packet of 600 Seeds ($3.15)
Caraway seed will produce plants that reach a mature height of 18 to 24 inches tall. Each plant displays fine, feathery leaves, accented with white or pink flowers, formed in umbels. The plants are known to attract an array of beneficial insects during the summer months, when the blooms are open.