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Cinnamon – A Bit of History

True cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, Lauraceae) comes from the bark of an evergreen tree, a member of the Laurel family. Native to the West Indies, it is mostly found in Sri Lanka and South India. Aromatic cinnamon comes from the inner bark of cinnamon trees. Commercially grown and cultivated cinnamon comes from cutting the branches of the cinnamon tree near to the ground so that several shoots grow out of the roots. Cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum, Lauraceae), used in North America, comes from the cassia tree grown in Vietnam, China, Indonesia, and Central America. Cassia has a slightly sweeter, more astringent flavor than true cinnamon (See HC 011253-448).

Cinnamon was first mentioned in print in 2700 B.C.E. by Chinese emperor Shen Nung, an avid promoter of agriculture. Egyptians imported it from China in 2000 B.C.E. and used the spice for embalming. Various Ancient Near Eastern cultures considered cinnamon sacred. The Hebrew Bible mentions its use in anointing oils. Ancient Romans burned it during funerals. Europeans used cinnamon to disguise the taste of spoiling meat. Ayurvedic medicine uses the spice to strengthen circulation, to relieve pain, to promote digestive energy, to alleviate cold/flu symptoms, and to aid in the absorption of other medicines. It is considered a "universal medicine."

The cinnamon trade is considered to have been a primary motive for world exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Dutch controlled early trade and distribution of cinnamon, causing it to become a very desirable and expensive commodity. The Portuguese, French and English also controlled the trade of cinnamon in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), over time. The Dutch had a monopoly on the trade of the wild produce; therefore, cinnamon was not cultivated until 1776, due to Dutch opposition and their belief that cultivation would destroy its properties. Finally, enough trees had been planted beyond Sri Lanka so that no one power could have a monopoly. Ground cinnamon is perhaps the most common of baking spices. Cinnamon is used in dishes and desserts throughout the world. Medicinally, cinnamon is both antifungal and antibacterial. It can be used in the reduction of milk flow and bleeding. The spice is considered a sedative and is good for calming stomach spasms.

Lori Glenn,  Managing Editor