Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum or Cinnoamomun zeylanicum) is a small evergreen tree that grows to a height usually between 30-50 feet. This particular cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka and has ovate-oblong leaves that are around 3-7 inches long. A cinnamon flower is green in color with a distinct odor and is arranged in panicles. It is part of the Lauraceae family and other close relatives such as cassia and burmannii are often confused with it.

Cinnamon verum leaves and flowers
Cinnamon verum leaves and flowers
verum cinnamon stick (left), burmannii cinnamon stick (right)
verum cinnamon stick (left), burmannii cinnamon stick (right)

Characteristics of the Lauraceae Family

The Lauraceae or Laurel Family is a grouping of flowering plants found world-wide, mostly in warm to tropical areas centered in Brazil and Southeast Asia. About 55 genera comprise this family and over 2000 species exist. For the most part, members of the Lauraceae family are aromatic evergreen trees or shrubs, but in the case of Sassafras and Cassytha they are decideous and parasitic vines respectively.

Commonly know genera in Lauraceae Family

  • Cinnamomum
  • Laurus
  • Lindera
  • Persea
  • Sassafras

Main Uses for this family

Lauraceae family plants do play a role in present day commerce. It is common for these plants to have high contents of essential oils and are important for spices and perfumes. Also, the hard wood of several Lauraceae species is a source of timber.

Cinnamon output in 2005
Cinnamon output in 2005

History of Cinnamon

Cinnamon's uses have documented throughout time dating back to even the Ancient Egyptians in in 2000 BC. It is even mentioned in the Bible when Moses is instructed to use cinnamon for anointing in Proverbs. During the First Roman Empire the cinnamon trade was centered around the Mediterranean port of Alexandria. Built when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, the port was central to the spice trade as it connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea (and the East). Arab merchants held a monopoly over the trade of spices, especially cinnamon, because of its exorbitantly high demand in the Mediterranean. These Arab merchants held the origin of these spices (Southeast Asia) secret in order so that their monopoly survived. Spices were an integral part of the Roman civilization in culinary purposes but also in luxury products. Perfumes, bath oils and lotions were of high price but were in high demand from the growing wealth of the Roman people. Later, during the global explorations of the Spanish and Portuguese, cinnamon was one of the most sought after spices.

High Value throughout History

Cinnamon use can be traced back all the way to 2800 BC from Chinese writings. Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon for the embalming process, and it was a used for the preservation of meats. Cinnamon is a good preservative because of the phenols which inhibited the growth of bacteria, and cinnamon's natural aroma reduced the odor of old meat. A first century scholar, Pliny the Elder claimed that cinnamon was worth about fifteen times the value of a silver at equal weight. King Nero of Rome actually burned an entire years supply at his wife's funeral to symbolize his grief after he murdered her to as a punishment. Cinnamon was so valuable during the age of exploration and imperialism that countries would have wars over the control of spice islands in Southeast Asia. The profits from monopolizing a spice were numerous and brought a lot of revenue but increased the risk of an attack.

Cultivation and Uses
external image cinnammon.jpg
The cinnamon trees are planted and are grown for about 2-3 years and are cut. This process is called coppicing, where the tree is never able to reach full grow because i cut after several years to let new shoots grow. The stems and twigs are processed by removing the outer layer of bark with a special curved knife. The inner layer of bark is what we recognize as being cinnamon. This layer will turn into the familiar quill shape as it dries. Imperfect quills are ground up for powdered cinnamon. Presently, cinnamon's primary use is in baking as a spice but is also used in medicines, perfumes and as scent.

1) Leventin, Estelle and Karen McMahon. Plants and Society Fifth Edition. McGraw-Hill, NY 2008.