Plant 314

Syzygium aromaticum (L.) Merrill & Perry (Myrtaceae)


Cloves are the dried, unopened, immature flower buds of a small, evergreen tree that was once found only in the Moluccas (Indonesia). These aromatic buds have been part of Chinese and Mediterranean trade with southeast Asia since at least the third century BCE and fourth century CE, respectively. By the eighth century CE, cloves were known throughout Europe, although traders knew only that they could be imported from places such as Java, Malacca and Sri Lanka. The rarity of cloves meant they commanded vast prices.

The clove trade is a story of imperial economic practices. In the early sixteenth century, Portuguese sailors discovered the Moluccas; the Portuguese crown monopolised the global clove trade. In 1605, the Dutch captured the Moluccan island of Ambon, placing the spice monopoly with the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The VOC was western Europe's economic powerhouse, fueling the Dutch economy and driving Dutch humanism and scientific discovery in Europe. At the centre of the VOC's power were Indonesian trading outposts. The Company protected its business interests using methods that were horrific, even when measured by those of the period.

The Dutch spice monopoly came to an end in the 1770s when the French horticulturalist Pierre Poivre obtained clove seeds from the Moluccas and established clove plantations in the French colonies of Mauritius and RĂ©union. During the nineteenth century, cloves spread rapidly into French and British tropical colonies across the globe. However, the most successful plantations were those established by Arab traders in Zanzibar, Pemba and Madadascar, using seed taken from Mauritius. In 2017, nearly 170,000 tonnes of cloves were produced globally, of which approximately 90% was produced by Indonesia and Madagascar.

In Indonesia, one of the most important uses of cloves is the manufacture of kretek, cigarettes that are made by mixing one part chopped cloves with two parts tobacco. However, in most countries, cloves are more familiar as flavourings for hams, apple dishes, pickles and wines.

The clove flavour is concentrated in oil glands found in many parts of the plant, especially the flower buds. The oil comprises up to 90% eugenol. Traditionally, clove oil is believed to have mild anesthetic properties; it was used for toothache relief. Biologically, clove oil is used for anatomical investigations under the microscope. Moreover, until waste products from paper manufacture were found to be cheaper, clove oil was the raw material for the manufacture of artificial vanilla flavouring.

Further reading

Freedman P 2015. Health, wellness and the allure of spices in the Middle Ages. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 167: 47-53.

Purseglove, JW 1984. Tropical crops. Dicotyledons. Longman.

Spary EC 2005. Of nutmegs and botanists: the colonial cultivation of botanical identity. In Schiebinger L and Swan C Colonial botany. University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 187-203.

Stephen Harris