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Caraway Plant: Seedy Spice And Tasty Roots

Caraway is grown mainly for its delicious anise-flavored seeds, which are often added to beautiful bakes such as rye bread.  As a biennial herb, you must wait two seasons to harvest, relegating the caraway plant to being only for the patient gardener.  Don’t let this put you off! Caraway is not just about seeds.  

The seeds are well known for their use in bread, biscuits, slaws, cheese, potato, and egg dishes, but did you know that you can eat the young leaves in salads or add at the end of cooking to stews and casseroles? The leaves are slightly bitter which can be beneficial in getting those stomach juices ready for action.  Caraway roots can also be eaten as a root vegetable similar to parsnips and carrots.

Caraway seeds have been used since the stone age to relieve indigestion and symptoms of bloating, cramps, and gas. It’s also an attractive plant to have in the garden, filling spaces in the flower border or even as a compact intercropping plant in the veg patch to keep weeds at bay. One or two plants should keep you supplied with seeds for the year, so all other plants are a bonus!

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Quick Care Guide

Caraway plant
While the caraway plant is known for its seed, it also has tasty roots. Source: UnconventionalEmma
Common NameCaraway, meridian fennel, and Persian cumin
Scientific NameCarum carvi 
FamilyApiaceae
Height & Spread8 inches –  first year, 24 inches – second year
LightFull sun
SoilSandy loam, fertile, well-drained
WaterRegular watering
Pests & DiseasesAphids, parsley caterpillar, carrot rust fly, leafhoppers, Aster yellows virus

All About Caraway

Caraway flowers and foliage
The leaf structure is lacy and delicate, just like the blooms. Source: detsugu

Caraway’s botanical name is Carum carvi and it is a member of the Apiaceae or carrot family along with other umbellifers like fennel and parsley. Native to western Asia and Europe, caraway has spread throughout the temperate regions of the globe.  ‘Caraway’ is the most commonly used name, but it is also known as meridian fennel and Persian cumin due to caraway seeds being similar in appearance and anise flavor.

As an aromatic herbaceous biennial plant, caraway develops a low-growing rosette of leaves in the first year and flowers and sets seed in the second year. Leaves are bright green, feathery, growing to 3–6 inches long (8-15cms), and are very similar in appearance to carrots.  Stems are slender, almost floppy, and vertically ribbed.  In the first season, plants grow to 8 inches (20cms) in height.

Caraway flowers are produced in the second year at the end of tall spikes, 24 inches long (60cms) and are made up of clusters of tiny white/pink flowers in flat umbels. The caraway taproot is long, pale creamy yellow/white a looks a bit like parsnip.

The seeds are the hallmark of the caraway plant.  They ripen one month after flowering, turning from golden yellow to a warm brown with five pale ridges running along the edge of each seed ½ inch (6mm) long.

The lifecycle is biennial, or spanning two growing seasons.  First season growth may die back completely in cold climates returning the following spring. Flowering stems will develop shortly after.  In warm climates, caraway seed sown in late summer/early fall will flower the following spring.  However, all seeds sown in spring will not flower until spring next year.

All parts of the plant are edible.  Leaves can be used in salads and the roots can be used as a root vegetable.  While the leaves are slightly bitter, the roots have a warm and earthy flavor.  Caraway seeds can be used in bread, biscuits, casseroles, stews, and potato dishes, or basically any dish that calls for a warm hint of anise.

As with most umbellifer plants, the aromatic nature of caraway makes a good growing companion for the likes of peas and beans. The flowers also attract beneficial and predatory insects to help deter and reduce nasty pests. 

As an intercropping plant in the vegetable garden, caraway can reduce weeds in its first year.  Just be careful it doesn’t become the weed in subsequent years as caraway self-seeds prolifically.

Planting Caraway

Sow caraway seed indoors in early spring at least 4 weeks before the last frost date after which they can be planted outside into their final growing positions.  Plants will produce lots of low-growing foliage in the first year and flowers and seed heads the following spring, early summer.  

In warmer climates, you can sow caraway seed under cover in early fall for planting out in spring when all risk of frost has passed.  Plants will flower and produce seed in late spring/summer of the same year of planting out.

Sow seeds ½ inch (1cm) deep if sowing in modules or sowing direct.  Transplants should be spaced 8-12 inches (20-31cm) apart and seedlings thinned to the same distance.  Leave 18 inches (45cms) between rows.

Plant caraway in full sun in fertile, well-drained soil. Plants will tolerate some partial shade especially if growing in a hot climate.  If you are short of space, you can plant caraway in containers.  Ensure the containers are deep enough to accommodate the long taproot and wide enough if you want to grow more than one plant.

Care

Caraway umbel
Delicate stem tendrils support the umbels of caraway flowers. Source: Dendroica cerulea

A plant for the patient gardener, but worth the wait.  Check out the following tips on growing caraway plants.

Sun and Temperature

Caraway grows best in cool temperate climates preferring a full sun location. Plants will tolerate warmer zones with adequate irrigation and shade during the hottest part of the day.  Suitable to grow in USDA zones 3-10. In colder climates plants die back over the winter months. Freezing temperatures shouldn’t be a problem, but if in doubt a good winter mulch will protect shallow roots or buds from frost. 

Water and Humidity

Maintain consistent soil moisture for young plants in the first year. Plants are more drought-resistant in their second year but must not be allowed to dry out completely.  Water early in the morning using timed drip hoses if available. A watering can or hose with water directed at the soil and not the leaves will also work.  Watering when plants are dormant in winter isn’t necessary, although check container-grown plants in case they dry out.

Soil

Plant caraway in rich, sandy loam well-drained soil.  Add plenty of good quality compost, leaf mulch, or well-rotted manure in spring before sowing to give your plants a head start.  Repeat the following spring before the first shoots break the soil.  A protective mulch in fall in very cold areas may help prevent frost damage. Soil pH should be in the range of 6.5 to 7.

Fertilizing

When seedlings are a few inches tall give them a liquid seaweed or nitrogen-rich feed to encourage lush, healthy growth in the first year. Repeat a few times throughout the growing season. It’s time to boost flower and seed production when flower buds begin to form the following spring. Use a potassium-rich fertilizer for fruit and flower development such as a good quality tomato feed.

Pruning

No pruning is required for caraway unless you are growing for flowers only.  If this is the case, you can deadhead the flowers as they fade to encourage a longer blooming period and maybe even a second flush.

Propagation

Caraway is propagated from seed.  Like most umbellifers, best results are achieved when using fresh caraway seed.  Seed germinates between one and two weeks. 

Sow seeds into module trays using a general-purpose compost, ½ inch (1cm) deep.  Keep the compost moist but not wet. Seeds can be sown directly outside into beds prepared with rich organic matter after all risk of frost has passed. Keep compost moist while seedlings establish in their first year.   

Harvesting And Storing

Caraway seeds
Caraway seeds are a popular addition to breads or sausage. Source: UnconventionalEmma

If you need to wait two seasons to harvest the fruits of your labor it’s important to get it right! Here are some tips to help. 

Harvesting

Harvest caraway leaves once plants are established in their first year.  Don’t over harvest the leaves as plants depend on them for photosynthesis to produce flowers and seeds the following year.  Seed heads are ready to harvest when seeds turn from golden yellow to brown.  Simply snip off the stem and bring them indoors to use in the kitchen and prepare for storage.  Once the seeds are harvested it’s time to dig up that lovely root.  Caraway roots have a nice earthy flavor and can be prepared in the same way as other root vegetables. 

Storing

Hang seed heads upside down somewhere cool and covered in a paper bag to catch any ripened seeds that fall.  Once completely dry, store in an airtight container for up to a year.  Caraway root is best used soon after harvesting but should store up to a week somewhere cool and dark.  Leaves are also best used fresh but will store well in the refrigerator for a few days.

Troubleshooting

Caraway is generally a trouble-free plant but just in case, here are a few potential issues to look out for.

Growing Problems

Growing caraway can require patience. So, one growing problem is to understand that it takes two seasons to reach harvest and not to give up on your plants or dig them up thinking the crop failed.  Another potential issue is not to let the soil dry out completely and to provide midday shade when located in a hot climate.  Plants will begin to wilt if scorched and dehydrated.

Pests

Aphids will attack the new growth of young developing caraway plants and new shoots in the second year. Aphids (Aphidoidea) are small, sticky, yellow, green, and black insects that feed on the sap of new growth.  Encourage lots of beneficial insects into the garden by planting a good selection of wildflowers and umbellifers such as coriander.  Spray with an organic insecticidal soap or neem oil.  Squishing aphids with fingers or a quick blast of water can help reduce numbers. 

Parsley caterpillars are another pest that can affect caraway plants.  Covering crops with insect mesh will provide protection from the beautiful but unwelcomed swallowtail butterflies that lay their eggs on the host plants.  Picking caterpillars off by hand is easy and quick to do and provides a nice dinner for local birds. BT is an effective way to eliminate larval populations that have already reached the plant.

Caraway can be affected by the carrot rust fly which lays eggs at the base of plants and the hatching larvae feed on the root leaving unsightly holes in the flesh.  If you are not growing caraway for roots, then don’t worry as the plant will not be harmed.  Cover crops with insect mesh to protect from adult flies.  Avoid growing carrot and parsnip nearby which are also affected by the carrot rust fly.  Sticky traps will also help to reduce adult numbers, but if your crops are already affected you can try nematodes to treat at the larvae stage.

Diseases

Aster yellow virus, also known as aster yellows, is a disease that causes stunted growth and malformation of leaves and yellowing of stems and flowers which ultimately do not reach maturity.  The disease is spread by leafhopper insects. To control the disease you must control the leafhoppers in the garden. Use sticky traps, protective covers and encourage beneficial insects into the garden to control leafhopper numbers. Insecticidal soap and neem oil can also be applied to plants.  Remove infected plants at first sight of the disease to keep it from spreading.

Frequently Asked Questions

Caraway flowers
Delicate clusters of caraway flowers. Source: detsugu

Q: What is caraway used for?

A: Caraway seeds can be used to flavor bread, cakes, and biscuits and can be added to soups, stews, and casseroles to add an anise kick.  Leaves can be used in salads and the root can be eaten like other root vegetables.

Q: Where do caraway plants grow?

A: Grow caraway in cool temperate climates in moist, fertile, and well-drained soils.

Q: Are caraway leaves edible?

A: ​​The leaves of the caraway plant are edible but slightly bitter to taste.