Five essential oils – an Introduction to Plant Derived Scents and their Role in Wellbeing. Part Three: Cardamom

This post continues Jennifer Peace Rhind‘s exploration of five essential oils and their roles in wellbeing. Click through to read earlier posts on Neroli and Benzoin.

Photo: Singing Dragon author Jennifer Peace Rhind

Author photo: Robert Taylor


Cardamom essential oil is derived from the seed capsules of Elettaria cardamomum – native to Southern India, and a member of the same botanical family as ginger. It was exported from India as early as Hellenistic times, and remains one of the world’s most expensive spices, second to saffron. Cardamom has been used for thousands of years; it is a very important spice in Arabic cultures and in Eastern traditional medicine. It is still added to Turkish coffee to counteract acidity. Like neroli, it is often considered to be an aphrodisiac – but not quite to the same extent, and usually in combination with other aromatics. However, according to Vedic texts, it had a reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac. Cardamom was used as a mediaeval love potion, and was known as ‘the fire of Venus’ (Venus being the Roman goddess of love and beauty). Cardamom features in incenses too, for example in Tibetan practice it is used medicinally for anxiety, and in Hindu ceremonies it forms part of a powdered incense formula called ‘Abir’. In ancient Egypt, cardamom was sometimes included as an ingredient of the incense known as kyphi, as an alternative to cinnamon. However, the Egyptian texts do not have a word that has been identified as meaning cardamom; it was the early writers such as Plutarch, Galen and Dioscorides that made these comments about the mysterious and celebrated kyphi.

Cardamom has been distilled to yield the essential oil since the 16th century, and is used in perfumery to give spicy, warm notes in floral fragrances. Its use in perfumery has perhaps been eclipsed by its medicinal attributes. An ancient Roman perfume called ‘Mendesium’ included cardamom, along with ben nut, myrrh and galbanum; this was valued not only as a perfume, but as a treatment for sore muscles – an early aromatherapy preparation? The essential oil should have a fresh spicy character; if there is a harsh or strong medicinal eucalyptus-like note, the quality may be questionable. This medicinal note is caused by the presence of a constituent that is also dominant in many eucalyptus essential oils, commonly known as eucalyptol, that gives the typical eucalyptus, or cineolic, odour. It can be present in cardamom essential oil at fairly high levels, but too much is detrimental to the fragrance. Eucalyptol, or 1,8-cineole has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain – hence the reputation of scents such as eucalyptus as stimulants to combat fatigue.

In aromatherapy, the main psychotherapeutic use of cardamom is for mental fatigue. Other uses are for the digestive system (echoing the traditional medicinal uses), the nervous system (traditional and contemporary evidence to support this) and as an expectorant (because, partly of the influence of the 1,8-cineole which has this property).

When smelling cardamom essential oil, look for a strong, penetrating, slightly cineolic note at the beginning that quickly gives way to the aromatic, sweet, spicy body before the balsamic nature of the dry out starts to be revealed. As you might expect, the eucalyptus-like top note can confer a feeling of alertness and clear sensations, so this scent can be very useful to help promote mental clarity, vitality and serenity.

Read tomorrow’s post to discover the properties of Virginian cedarwood

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