Cinnamomum verum J.Presl (Lauraceae)

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Cinnamon


Desire for the spice cinnamon initiated European expansion during the Age of Exploration. Cinnamon, from the oil-rich bark of at least two, tropical evergreen tree species, has been used for flavouring, incense, perfume, medicine and even aphrodisiacs, since antiquity. The funerary rites of wealthy Egyptians and Romans involved vast amounts of the spice, whilst mulled wine was essential to worship Bacchus. Cinnamon was so valuable it could be used to bribe monarchs and pontiffs. Columbus argued his discovery of American cinnamon justified the cost of his voyage. He had not found cinnamon but it did not stop futile cinnamon searches in the Americas. The Dutch maintained their global cinnamon monopoly until the late eighteenth century by exploiting beliefs that wild plants were better medicines than cultivated ones, and intimidating suppliers and burning European cinnamon stocks to keep prices high. From the sixteenth century, the Sri Lankan cinnamon economy was a constant European battleground until these empires established networks of tropical botanic gardens to experiment with cultivating cinnamon to satisfy their populations' spicy desires.

Bark quills from at least four Cinnamomum species have been used as cinnamon. The two most important are Cinnamomum verum (true cinnamon) from Sri Lanka and southern India and Cinnamomum aromaticum (cassia) from Burma and China. Throughout the history of cinnamon these species have been intentionally, or unintentionally, confused; confusion which is maintained today. Ancient traders told fantastical tales about how the spice was harvested to protect their sources, add mystique and maintain prices. Indeed, the names alone developed social cache. In his manuscript on English manners, Boke of Nurture (c. 1450), John Russell discriminated between cinnamon for lords and cassia for plebeians.

Flavour differences among Cinnamomum barks are subtle but when used for commercial essential oil production, species differences are critical. The essential oil of true cinnamon bark is rich in cinnamaldehyde, whilst leaf oil is eugenol-rich; in cassia, both bark and leaf are cinnamaldehyde-rich. Camphor, commercially extracted from another Cinnamomum species, is found in the roots of true cinnamon.

True cinnamon is harvested from tall, aromatic trees that have leaves with dark green tops, pale blue-green bottoms and three prominent basal veins. The tiny, pale yellow, foetid flowers produce purple-black, single-seeded fruits. Ecologically, the fruits are important food for birds and the seeds, which have no dormancy, germinate quickly. In places where the spice trade was once important, e.g., Seychelles, cinnamon is a serious weed.

Further reading
Dalby A 2000. Dangerous tastes. The story of spices. The British Museum Press.

Turner J 2004. Spice. The history of a temptation. Harper Perennial.

Stephen Harris