Grains-of-paradise fruit is a member of the Zingiberaceae family (ginger group), which is a major family of tropical and subtropical fruits. It is also known as Guinea grains, Melegueta pepper, Piper melegueta and Aframomum melegueta roscoe, which is its botanical name.
Aframomum melegueta roscoe is a perennial herb that produces a spicy edible fruit commonly found in the tropical regions, particularly of western Africa. It is somewhat palm-like in appearance, forming dense clumps and growing to a height of 4-5 ft (1.2-1.5 m), with divided smooth leaves that can be up to 9 in (23 cm) long.
There are two types of grains-of-paradise fruit. They resemble the spice cardamom in appearance and pungency, and the commercial variety is perhaps even closer in appearance and scent. True grains-of-paradise fruit tends to be less pungent than cardamom once cooked or heated, however.
The seeds are approximately oval in shape, hard, shiny, and reddish-brown color, whereas cardamom is pale buff-colored. Powdered grains-of-paradise fruit are pale gray. This spice is aromatic and can be distinguished by its hot peppery taste.
In Africa and throughout the tropics, grains-of-paradise fruit (Aframomum melegueta) is a cultivated crop and is used as a remedy for a variety of ailments, although it is now rarely used outside these areas. It is one of the plants extensively made use of by African ethno-medicine.
Some confusion surrounds the identity of the true grains-of-paradise fruit, as approximately seven species of fruit are also sometimes mistakenly referred to as grains-of-paradise fruit, particularly Malabar cardamom, Cardamomum malabaricum, and Cardamomum minus, also the Zanzibar pepper. Grains-of-paradise fruit have even been confused with Nux vomica, which is used as a homeopathic remedy. In fact, it is now recognized that Aframomum melegueta roscoe is the authentic species. The name "grains-of-paradise fruit" dates from the Middle Ages, and denotes the fact that it was once a highly valued commodity. The west African coast became known as the Grain Coast because grains-of-paradise fruit was traded there.
Considered to be spicy, hot, and slightly bitter, the active constituents of grains-of-paradise fruit include essential oils such as gingerol, paradol, and shagaol. It also contains manganese, gum, tannin, starch, and a brown resin. It has been proven to be an effective anti-fungal and antimicrobial agent.
Like cardamom, it is also used as a condiment, due to its pleasant taste, which is pungent without being intensely bitter. It is mainly used nowadays to flavor wines, spirits, and particularly beer, although during the Middle Ages it was a favorite spice in Europe and other parts of the world. This spice, despite its popular beginnings, is hardly known outside of Africa today. Nevertheless, it remains popular as a spice in Arab cuisine, particularly Morocco and Tunisia. It has also been used as a pepper substitute, and may be chewed in cold weather to warm the body. In addition, it is a common addition to veterinary remedies.
The essential oil of grains-of-paradise is available, though not easy to find. Its properties are similar to those of the fruit, but it is often chosen for its fragrance. Grains-of-paradise fruit is used in African countries as an aphrodisiac as well as a treatment for measles and leprosy. Interestingly, extract of Aframomum melegueta has been shown in laboratory studies to increase sexual arousal and behavior in male rats. It is also used to reduce hemorrhage, particularly associated with childbirth.
Other phytomedicinal uses of grains-of-paradise include as a purgative (strong laxative), galactogogue (to increase production of breastmilk), anthelmintic (antiparasitic—it is effective against worms, etc.), and hemostatic agent (purifies the blood). It has even been found to be effective against the dreaded schistosomiasis, which is a major problem to the medical authorities on the African continent.
Grains-of-paradise fruit is also effective against intestinal infections and infestations, and is also used to calm indigestion and heartburn. Interestingly, grains-of-paradise fruit is one of the plants presently being researched as a possible alternative to allopathic medicines in tropical countries, where they are attempting to find cheaper and more readily available local phyto-medicinal alternatives to their common health problems, which are chiefly the effects of tropical diseases. Phyto-medicines have often proved to be more effective than synthetic agents. In addition they have a more sympathetic effect on the body, and their production is compatible with current environmental concerns.
Grains of paradise are also used in Chinese herbal medicine, their use being interchangeable with the more readily available cardamom. It is taken for nausea and vomiting, intestinal discomfort, and pain and discomfort during pregnancy.
The fruit is exclusively the part of the plant used, dried, whole, or powdered. The essential oil can also be obtained. The whole grains may be chewed or can be ground and incorporated into mixtures.
As grains-of-paradise fruit is a name given to so many other spices, it is advisable to ensure that the correct species is obtained.
Aframomum melegueta roscoe is included in the FDA's list of botanicals that are generally recognized as safe.
No side effects have been reported from grains-of-paradise fruit as of 2002; however, this spice is not frequently used in the United States. People who are allergic to cardamom or ginger should use grains-of-paradise fruit with caution.
As of 2002, no interactions have been reported with standard prescription medications.
Grieve, Mrs. M. F.R.H.S A Modern Herbal. London: Tiger Books International, 1992.
Kamtchouing, P., G. Y. Mbongue, T. Dimo, et al. "Effects of Aframomum melegueta and Piper guineense on Sexual Behaviour of Male Rats." Behavioral Pharmacology 13 (May 2002): 243-247.
Centre for Economic Botany, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Richmond, Surrey; TW9 3AE, United Kingdom. Fax: +44 (0)20 8332 5768. <www.rbgkew.org.uk>.
Centre for International Ethnomedicinal Education and Research (CIEER). <www.cieer.org>.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD