(Cinnamomum zeylanicum Blume)
Cinnamon trees belong to a large genus of some 250 species, most of which are aromatic. True Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon and the south-eastern coast of India, while the closely related Cassia is native to China. Cinnamon and Cassia are both small tropical evergreen trees that grow up to 20 - 30 feet tall, with aromatic bark and leaves. Young leaves employ a typical trick of tropical trees to make themselves look unappealing to predatory insects by assuming a limp, reddish appearance, as if wilting. Once they mature they perk up and darken to a deep green. The leaves are elongated ovate with a pointed tip, shiny and dark green on the upper surface, lighter below. The inconspicuous whitish flowers grow in panicles, which later develop into bluish berries. The bark is reddish brown and smooth.
Despite of its exotic, distant origin, Cinnamon was known and widely used in the ancient world. The Arabs were the first to introduce it to the west and dominated the trade for centuries via their network of trading routes that went as far as China. Their account of where and how Cinnamon and Cassia were obtained proves that exaggerated marketing techniques were not invented yesterday. Herodotus (484BC - 425BC) gives the full account:
Their mode of obtaining Cassia is this: - The whole of their body, and the face, except the eyes, they cover with skins of different kinds; they thus proceed to the place where it grows, which is in a marsh, not very deep, but infested by a winged species of animal much resembling a bat, very strong, and making a hideous noise; they protect their eyes from these, and then gather the cassia.
Their manner of collecting the Cinnamon is still more extraordinary. In what particular spot it is produced they themselves are unable to certify. There are some who assert that it grows in the region where Bacchus was educated and their mode of reasoning is by no means improbable. These affirm that the vegetable substance which we, as instructed by the Phoenicians, call Cinnamon, is by certain large birds carried to their nests constructed of clay, and placed in the cavities of inaccessible rocks. To procure it thence, the Arabians have contrived this stratagem: - they cut in very large pieces the dead bodies of oxen, asses or other beasts of burden and carry them near these nests: they then retire to some distance; the birds soon fly to the spot and carry these pieces of flesh to their nests, which not being able to support the weight, fall in pieces to the ground. The Arabians take this opportunity of gathering the Cinnamon which they afterwards dispose of to different countries.
This and similar stories were circulated in order to obscure the true origin of the precious bark to put off any competition. It worked, for some time. Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) was the first to assert that Cassia and Cinnamon do not grow in Arabia.
Cinnamon trade was big, even in the ancient world. Tons of it were imported, as it was extensively used for ritual and mundane purposes. The Egyptians used it for embalming potions, perfumes, incense and oils. It is also mentioned in the Old Testament. In fact, the word 'Cinnamon' is derived from the ancient Hebrew word 'kinnämön, which in turn probably originates from the Malay or Indonesian term 'Kayumanis', meaning 'sweet wood'. In China, the city of Guilin was originally known as 'Kwei Lin' meaning 'cassia forest', in allusion to the fragrant groves of cassia that that surrounded the ancient city.
The Italians found that the appearance of Cinnamon quills reminded them of cannons and thus they called it 'canela', which became 'kaneel' in Dutch and 'cannelle' in French.
Both Cassia and Cinnamon was known in the ancient world. Cassia was the more widespread species, though Cinnamon was considered to be of finer quality. Even now, Cinnamon fetches a higher prize. In classical times it was very precious indeed: Pliny gives the market price for an Egyptian pound (350g) of Cinnamon at the time (1st century) as over 1000 Denares, which was equivalent to 5kg of silver.
All the more incredulous that Emperor Nero (not known to have been a very nice sort of chap) demanded every scrap of Cinnamon that could be found in Rome to be delivered to him to be burnt on the funeral pyre of his second wife Poppaea Sabina, after he had killed her by kicking her pregnant belly. This amounted to an entire year's supply of Cinnamon.
The Arabs controlled the spice trade for almost 3000 years, from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. They traded with the Greeks and Romans, and Venice became the most important city for spice imports to northern Europe. Spices were among the most profitable trading goods of that period in history, and it was amongst other precious spices, for the sake of Cinnamon that Columbus sailed West in 1492 an attempt to find an easier way to the (then) Promised Land and Spice Islands in the East. Instead he 'found' the Americas, and was at first mightily disappointed at the lack of spices there. Lorenzo da Almeida, the son of the Portuguese Viceroy of India, Francisco da Almeida, was luckier. When his father laid upon him the task of putting some Arab pirate vessels out of action that were causing a great deal of vexation and distress to Portuguese traders in the Indian Ocean, he immediately went off to fulfill his mission. At the time the Portuguese were already controlling some places along the Indian coast, gradually displacing their Arab and Moorish predecessors, who naturally did not take too kindly to the idea of being usurped. In response they took to capsizing and destroying the heavily laden merchant ships on their return journeys to Europe. Lorenzo went after them, but as fate would have it, the winds pushed his boat towards to coast of Colombo, where, alas, he 'discovered' the source of the fabled Cinnamon.
The Portuguese requested trading rights from the Sinhalese King, which was granted. Soon they started to control the trade of Cinnamon, and even requested large tributes of Cinnamon from the Sinhalese. At length, they grew impatient with the Portuguese' ruthless rule and turned to the Dutch with a plea for help. By no means oblivious to the opportunity that was laid at their door, the Dutch did not wait long before they made their moves. As soon as Portugal seized to exist as an independent State in 1580 the Dutch moved in and started to seize control in Ceylon. It took them 50 years to oust the Portuguese completely. Unfortunately for the local population, which made up the caste of Cinnamon workers whose task it was to harvest the bark, the Dutch behaved no more cordial towards them than the Portuguese did before them. The Sinhalese King of Kandy occasionally undertook military campaigns against the European oppressors and occasionally managed to do so successfully, killing thousands of Dutch in the process and severely disrupting trade by destroying some of the trees.
As a consequence the Dutch decided to create Cinnamon plantations in order to safeguard supplies in the future. But this in turn threatened the bark collectors, who thought their livelihood at stake. In response they tried to sabotage the initiative - alas, their attempts were met only by worse retributions. Those caught in any acts of rebellion had their hands cut off, while those who attempted to smuggle Cinnamon and sell it on the black market were sentenced to death - as were they buyers.
In time the plantations proved to be economically so successful that too much Cinnamon was produced, which lowered the profitability. Just as is done today when surplus supplies threaten to flood the market and push down the prices, the Dutch ended up burning their precious harvest of Cinnamon, not only at source, but also in Amsterdam, where 16 million French Livres worth of Cinnamon were burnt on June 1, 1760, an event that was talked about for years to come, as the whole of Holland was shrouded in a massive fragrant cloud of Cinnamon smoke for days following the burning.
Next, the British moved in. Ceylon, which essentially was under Dutch rule, became enemy territory by association when France, following the revolution, occupied Holland and was at war with Britain. The British naturally also wanted their share of the profitable Cinnamon trade and quickly seized the Dutch plantations. However, the Dutch still won the economic battle as by an act of biopiracy they managed to take seedlings to some of their other colonies, which proved fertile ground for establishing new Cinnamon plantations, and Britain did not manage to maintain the monopoly on Cinnamon trade that their predecessors had enjoyed.
Sri Lankan Cinnamon is still regarded as the best grade, but its importance as a major source of income has steadily decreased. Today it does not even feature among the top 25 export items of Sri Lanka. As a spice, its use, although ubiquitous, has largely been reduced to Christmas baking and other sweets (whereas formerly it was heavily used even for meat dishes). Mexico now leads world in Cinnamon consumption.
Today, all commercial Cinnamon derives from plantations, so there is no pressure on wild populations. The trees take well to regular coppicing. They are harvested for the first time after about 3-4 years, and regular coppicing not only increases the yield but also keeps their growth bush-like, which makes harvesting easier.
The harvesting process is a bit laborious. The bark is stripped during the rainy season when the sap is flowing freely. This makes the cutting easier. The outer bark is scraped off and the inner bark naturally coils up into quills. The sheets are rolled up together into quills and stuffed with smaller quills and broken bits to increase their strength. These quills are cut into segments of about 1 meter and dried in the shade.
Cassia quills look almost the same as true Cinnamon except that their texture is slightly coarser and the colour is more reddish-brown. True Cinnamon has a pale colour and very fine texture. Both species are used almost interchangeably, but gourmets insist that true Cinnamon has the finer taste and is to be preferred for culinary purposes.
Both Cinnamon leaves and bark are used for essential oil distillation, yielding two quite different products. Cinnamon bark contains mostly cinnamaldehyde (60%), while leaf oil consists mostly of eugenol (80%). The root bark is also sometimes distilled and yields up to 60% of camphor. Thus, these oils should not be used interchangeably. The bark oil is highly aromatic, with a sweet, spicy warming, typical Cinnamon scent. It has germicidal and fungicidal properties. Due to the high price of the pure oil, it is often adulterated with the cheaper leaf oil. Both oils can cause sensitization when applied directly to the skin, resulting in allergic dermatitis type of reactions.
Inner bark (leaves and buds are sometimes also used in countries where Cinnamon grows)
Essential oils, (cinnamyl acetate, and cinnamyl alcohol, and other volatile substances), manganese, calcium, fibre, iron
Aromatic, carminative, stimulant, anti-microbial, anti-fungal
Despite the fact that Cinnamon has such a longstanding history of use, it is not very commonly employed for medicinal purposes today outside its native homelands. However, recent studies have been showing some interesting effects, which may renew this ancient spice's popularity.
The ancients were aware of the differences between Cinnamon and Cassia. Dioscurides clearly distinguishes between the two species and describes both in detail. He recommends Cassia as an eye remedy. He also says that when taken internally it will act as an anti-inflammatory and will stimulate menstruation. In a sitzbad it will help to open the uterus. Of Cinnamon he says that it stimulates the urinary tract and can be used for problems of the kidneys, edema and urinary retention. He also recommends it for cough and congestion of the respiratory system.
In Ayurvedic medicine Cinnamon oil is used in external applications for rheumatism, aching joints and stiffness. It is also used for toothache and sore gums, much like clove oil. Aryuveda makes use of Cinnamon for the same purposes as Disocorides recommends: as a decongestant for the respiratory tract and urinary problems. It is a good addition to teas for coughs and colds and is sometimes used in steam inhalations for respiratory conditions. In India it is used at the first sign of a cold to prevent it from taking hold fully.
The essential oil component of Cinnamon has anti-coagulant properties, which helps to thin blood and improves circulation. (Caution is advised for those already on blood thinning medication). It also exhibits anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties. The anti-microbial action helps to preserve food and can be used in place of common food preservatives. It not only helps to prevent food spoilage by common bacteria, but also by yeasts. Cinnamon is one of the few herbs that can used to treat fungal growths like candida.
Cinnamon is a warming aromatic tonic that stimulates the digestive system and can help reduce cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Recent studies have found it to be quite effective for 'metabolic syndrome' a 'pre' stage of insulin resistant type 2 diabetes. As little as 2 teaspoons of the spice have shown a marked effect in people who were not on insulin medication. It achieves this effect by delaying emptying of the stomach content after a meal, which prevents blood sugar peaks. It also sensitizes insulin receptors and inhibits an enzyme that inactivates these receptors, thus making a significant impact on glucose uptake. This is great news as Cinnamon can so easily be added to foods and drinks as part of a normal diet.
Another study has shown that Cinnamon can have a beneficial effect on cognitive function. It was shown that people who used Cinnamon prior to test situations performed better than the control group. They also appeared to process new information better.
In Indian and Sri Lankan cooking Cinnamon is used as a common spice, not only for sweets, but also as an integral part of the spice mixture known as 'curry powder'. It is frequently mixed with honey and taken as tea, though the British found it more to their taste to add rum and lemon to the brew. Cinnamon is also an essential ingredient of 'Chai', the Indian spice tea, which was long rumored to have aphrodisiac properties. Probably the warming and fortifying properties of the various spices it is comprised of helped to kindle passions, especially among the willing.
Just as for Curry powder, there are countless recipes for Chai. Chai is just the name given to spiced, milky black tea. Here is a good basic recipe. Experiment and adjust to taste in any way you fancy.
In a saucepan simmer 6 teaspoons of black tea in ½ liter of water and ½ liter of milk.
Simmer for 20 minutes, add honey to taste.
Curry is a spice blend consisting of many different spices. The blend is adjusted depending on the recipe and in accordance with the 'heat level' desired. The basic ingredients are:
Cumin, Coriander, Ginger, Cayenne, Turmeric, Cinnamon
Also sometimes added are:
Fennel, Fenugreek, Cloves, Mustard Seeds, Asafoetida, Nutmeg, Black Pepper, Allspice
If you really want to create that authentic Indian flavour it is essential make your own curry spice mix. But the trick is not just to blend them all into one homogenous powder, but to fry the spices in oil for a few minutes before putting your other ingredients into the pan. The harder seeds and barks need a menstrum such as oil to capture the flavour (which mostly consists of essential oils) and heat to release it. Careful! Whole seeds have a tendency to 'spit' and explode when exposed to heat so it is best to lightly crush seeds before throwing them into the hot oil.
Heat wine and dissolve the honey in it. Slice the fruit and add to the brew. Add spices (crushed) and brandy. Keep hot on low flame without allowing the brew to boil. Adjust sweetness to taste.
Blend almonds, icing sugar, Cinnamon, egg whites and amaretto and knead to form a smooth dough.
Lightly dust a work surface with icing sugar and roll out the dough ½cm - 1cm thick
Cut out star shapes with cookie cutter
Whip egg white until stiff and slowly add icing sugar while whipping. Use this paste to glaze each cookie.
Pre-heat oven to 150°C (300°F)
Carefully bake on the lowest rack for 10 - 15min. (Take out sooner if the top starts turning brown)
The cookies should be crunchy on the outside and moist inside.
Note: While doing research on this article I came across some youtube videos on something called 'the Cinnamon challenge', which apparently is some sort of modern variation of a dare played by youngsters. The challenge is to try and swallow a heaped spoon full of Cinnamon powder, which albeit, is impossible. It is not just a dumb challenge, but also dangerous as the large quantity of dry powder in the mouth can actually cause suffocation. Most people just instantly spit out the powder, gasp for air and get a strong stomach reaction causing vomiting. Too much of a good thing can be just too much.
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