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A. Historical Background of Cardamom
THE AGRONOMY AND ECONOMY OF CARDAMOM
cardamom in the ancient Egyptian texts, unlike that of pepper. Possibly,
cardamom was just beginning to reach Assyria and Babylonia through the
land routes. Interestingly reference to cardamom has been seen in the ancient
Greek and Roman texts. Spices were the symbols of royalty and luxury and
cardamom was used in the manufacture of perfumes during the Greek and
Roman times. In addition, cardamom was also used as an aphrodisiac (Parry,
1969). Significantly, the Greek physician and author of the legendary Materia
Medica, Dioscorides (40–90 AD) makes a mention of cardamom in his work.
Cardamom was widely used to aid digestion and that was the most important
reason both the Greeks and Romans imported the same in large quantities
from India. Thus, it became one of the most popular oriental spices in Greek
and Roman cuisine. This led to cardamom being listed as a dutiable item in
Alexandria in 176 AD.
Linschoten in the Journal of Indian Travels (1596) describes two types of
cardamom in use in southern India, the ‘‘greater’’ (large) and ‘‘lesser’’ (small)
types. This would suggest that the large cardamom found extensively in Nepal
must have been finding its way to southern India through land routes, brought
by travelers dating back to nearly 4000 years. Dymock while referring to the
introduction of cardamom to Europe writes, ‘‘When they were first introduced
into Europe is doubtful, as their identity with the Amomum and Cardamomum
of the Greeks and Romans cannot be proved.’’ Linschoten writes about lesser
cardamom as ‘‘it mostly is grown in Calicut and Cannanore, places on the coast
of Malabar.’’ Paludanus, a contemporary of Linschoten, wrote that according
to Avicenna, there are two kinds of cardamoms, ‘‘greater’’ and the ‘‘lesser’’ and
continues to add that cardamom was unknown to the Greeks such as Galen and
Dioscorides. Galen in his Seventh Book of Simples wrote, ‘‘cardamom is not so
hot as Nasturtium or water cresses,’’ ‘‘but pleasanter of savor and smell with
some small bitterness.’’ The properties indicated were dissimilar to that of the
Indian cardamom. Dioscorides in his First Book commented on the cardamom
brought from Armenia and Bosphorus and added that ‘‘we must choose that
which is full, and tough in breaking, sharp and bitter of taste, and smell there of,
which cause heaviness in a man’s head (Watt, 1872). Obviously, Dioscorides
was writing not about Indian cardamom, but other distinctly diVerent plant.
Such references led Paludanus (Watt, 1872) to infer that the Amomum and
Cardamomum of the ancient Greeks were not the spices of India. On the whole,
references to cardamom in ancient and early centuries of the Christian era and
even in the middle ages are but scanty compared to black pepper. Even
Auboyar in his classic work on day‐to‐day living in ancient India (200 BC to
700 AD) makes only a fleeting mention of cardamom (Mahindru, 1982).
The Mediterranean merchants were clearly cheated by the Arabs on the sea
route through which the latter brought home the spices from India. Like
pepper, cardamom was no exception. Pliny thought that cardamom was
grown in Arabia. This belief persisted until the discovery of the sea route to
K. P. PRABHAKARAN NAIR
India and the Portuguese landed on the west coast of India. This coincided with
the ending of the Arab monopoly on spice trade, and the Portuguese started
shipping out pepper, cardamom, and ginger to Europe. Since the European
colonizers were more interested in procuring pepper and ginger both crops took
hold in India, the former, in particular along the Malabar Coast. Cardamom
was relegated to the back seat. This was the case in the period from sixteenth
to eighteenth centuries. Cardamom was considered a minor forest produce. It
is only in the beginning of the nineteenth century that cardamom plantations
were established, but it was interplanted with coVee. But, its cultivation
spread rapidly in the Western Ghats and the region south of Palakkad (the
midsouthern district of Kerala) became to be known as Cardamom Hills.
The earliest written evidence of cardamom growing in India was that of the
oYcers working for the British East India Company. The most important
among these written pieces was that of Ludlow, an Assistant Conservator of
Forests. Others were the Pharmacographia, Madras Manual, and Rice Manual.
A brief description of cardamom cultivation in South India was also given by
Watt (1872). The system of cardamom collection from naturally growing plants
continued until 1803 but demand escalated in later years and this naturally led
to establishment of large‐scale plantations in India and Sri Lanka, what was
then known as Ceylon (Ridley, 1912). In two erstwhile states of Travancore and
Cochin, within the entire state of Kerala, which had their own Kings, cardamom was a monopoly of the respective governments. The Raja (King) of
Travancore mandated that all the cardamom produced be sold to his oYcial
representative and sent to a central depot in the Alleppey town in central
Kerala, which was then a state port. Here the produce was sold by auction.
Principal buyers were Muslims and the best lot, known as ‘‘Alleppey Green,’’
was reserved for export. In the forestland in the state of Kerala, owned by the
then British government, cardamom was considered as a ‘‘miscellaneous
produce,’’ while in the neighboring Coorg district in the state of Karnataka,
forestlands were leased out to private cultivators of cardamom. Leghorn, the
Conservator of Forests in the Madras Presidency (earlier nomenclature
that included four southern states, namely, Kerala, Karnataka, Madras,
and Andhra, which have all become independent since then), the spread of
coVee eclipsed that of cardamom in many areas of ‘‘Malabar Mountains’’—a
reference to Western Ghats (Watt, 1872). In the Madras Manual reference
to cardamom cultivation was seen. It was mentioned ‘‘In the hills of Travancore
cardamom grows spontaneously in the deep shades of the forests: it resembles
somewhat turmeric and ginger plants but grows to a height of 6–10 ft, and
throws out the long shoots which bear the cardamom pods.’’ The following
passage describes cardamom management. ‘‘The owners of the gardens, early
in the season come up from the low country east of the Ghats, cut the brushwood and burn the creepers and otherwise clear the soil for the growth of the
plants as soon as the rains fall. They come back to gather the cardamom when
THE AGRONOMY AND ECONOMY OF CARDAMOM
they ripen, about October or November’’ (Watt, 1872). One can surmise from
the writings of the British oYcials that a process of bleaching used to be carried
out in Karnataka, and this was done by transporting cardamom to Havre, a
place in Dharma district of Karnataka, and the bleaching process was done
using the water from a specific well which resulted in enhancement of flavor in
the dried product (Watt, 1872). A bleaching method is elaborately described by
Mollison (1900) where soapnut water was used.
B. CARDAMOM PRODUCTION, PRODUCTIVITY: A WORLD VIEW
Presently cardamom production is primarily concentrated in India and
Guatemala. Cardamom was introduced to Guatemala in 1920, most likely
either from India or Sri Lanka, by a New York broker and was planted in the
vicinity of Coban in the department of Alta Verapaz (Lawrence, 1978). After
the World War II, cardamom production in Guatemala increased substantially on account of shortage in production and high prices and Guatemala
soon became the top cardamom producer in the world. The natives do not
relish the taste of cardamom and the entire quantity produced is exported.
Today Guatemala produces about 13,000–14,000 t of cardamom annually.
Table I gives a world view of cardamom production and productivity.
Cardamom Production in the World
Percentage share of total
Estimates, actual figures unavailable.
Source: Cardamom Statistics, 1984–1985, Cardamom Board, Government of India, Cochin,
Spices Statistics, 1997 Spices Board, Government of India, Cochin, Kerala State.
All India Final Estimate of Cardamom, 1997/1998, Government of India, Ministry of Agriculture.
Important note: In three decades the percentage contribution of India to total production
plummeted by 54%, while Guatemala increased it by 199%. Other countries in the same period
had a similar decline of 54% like that of India, thus, Guatemala takes the leading position in
cardamom production in the world.
K. P. PRABHAKARAN NAIR
In India the cardamom area has come down during the last two decades
from 1,05,000 ha in 1987–1988 to 69,820 ha in 1997–1998—a decrease of 33.5%.
Production increased from 3200 t during 1987–1988 to 9290 t in 1999–2000—an
increase of 190%. During the same period, productivity has increased from
47 to 173 kg haÀ1—an increase of 268%. Cardamom cultivation is primarily
confined to three South Indian states, namely, Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil
Nadu. Kerala has 59% of the total area cultivated and contributes 70% of the
total production. Karnataka has 34% of total area cultivated and contributes
23% to total production, while Tamil Nadu has 7% area and contributes the
same percentage to total production. Most of the cardamom‐growing areas in
Kerala are located in the districts of Idukki, Palakkad, and Waynad. In
Karnataka, the crop is grown in the districts of Coorg, Chickmagalur, and
Hassan and, to some extent, in North Kanara district. In Tamil Nadu, cardamom cultivation is located in certain places of Pulney and Kodai hills. On the
whole, in India, cardamom is small land holder’s crop and there are 40,000 such
holdings covering an area of 80,000 ha (George and John, 1998). The
cardamom‐growing regions of South India lies within 8 and 30 latitude
and 75 and 78 longitudes. The crop grows at elevations from 800 to 1500 m
above mean sea level (amsl) and these areas lie on both, the windward and
leeward, sides of the Western Ghats, which acts as a climate barrier of the
monsoon trade winds, thereby determining the spatial distribution of rainfall.
The rainfall pattern diVers among the cardamom‐growing regions located
in Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu (Nair et al., 1991). The most important
factor that has contributed to the increase in cardamom productivity is
the cultivation of high‐yielding varieties and improved crop management.
However, cardamom export from India has plummeted during the same
period. In 1985–1986, cardamom export was 3272 t while in 1989–1990 it
touched a rock bottom level of 173 t—a steep decrease to 5.3%. In one decade,
from 1985–1986 to 1994–1995, export earning came down from Indian Rupees
(Rs) 53.46 crores to just Rs 7.6 crores, that is from US$11.9 million to US$1.8
million—a dramatic decrease of 85%.
Cardamom Cultivation in Other Parts of the World
The cultivation of cardamom is getting to be popular in certain pars of PNG.
Cardamom grows here in virgin forestlands and its cultivation is exclusively
with private estate owners. Productivity of these estates is very high, where yield
levels of 2000–2500 kg haÀ1 has been obtained (Krishna, 1997). Total production was about 313 million tons in 1985, which declined later to about 54 million
tons in 1993. It hovers around 68–70 million tons. In Tanzania the crop was
introduced in the beginning of the twentieth century by German immigrants
and is being grown in certain parts of the country like Amani and East