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Cinnamomum verum J.Presl 1823
pronounced: sin-uh-MOH-mum VER-um
(Lauraceae – the laurel family)
pronounced: sin-uh-MOH-mum zee-LAN-ik-um
common names: Cinnamon, True Cinnamon, Ceylon Cinnamon, Sri Lanka Cinnamon
Cinnamomum is derived from κινναμωμον (kinnamomon), the Greek name for the plant, a word that Herodotus borrowed from the Phoenicians; verum is from the Latin verus, true. Zeylanicum is botanical Latin – of/from Ceylon.
Sri Lanka still produces the bulk (80-90%) of the world’s Cinnamomum verum, and it is also cultivated commercially in the Seychelles and Madagascar. The plant photographed is being grown in a Picnic Bay garden. There is much confusion between the terms ‘cinnamon’ and ‘cassia’, as they are often used interchangeably. ‘Cassia’ properly refers to other species of cinnamon, obtained from such trees as Cinnamomum cassia and C. burmannii. The former is sometimes called ‘Chinese cinnamon’ or ‘Saigon cinnamon, and the latter ‘Java cinnamon’ or ‘Padang cassia’.
The true cinnamon tree grows to about 10 m in height and has leathery leaves, usually opposite, lanceolate to ovate, 11-16 cm long, with acute tips. The inconspicuous yellow flowers, tubular with 6 lobes, grow in panicles that are about the same length as the leaves. The fruit is a small fleshy berry (up to about 15 mm long) that ripens to black, partly surrounded by a cuplike perianth.
The powdered form of the spice cinnamon is obtained by removing the outer bark of the tree, and scraping from it the inner bark. This inner bark is then dried, and ground into powder. Cultivated trees are usually coppiced when they are 2 years old, to a height of about 12 cm from the ground. Shoots suitable for peeling, with a diameter of 1.5 – 2 cm, take about 4 years to develop. The branch is cut from the tree, the outer bark is removed, and the branch is beaten evenly with a hammer to loosen the inner bark, which is then pried off in long strips that curl into rolls (called ‘quills’) on drying. Once dry, the bark is cut into 5 – 10 cm lengths (‘sticks’) for sale.
The main difference between true cinnamon and cassia is in the amount of coumarin they contain. Coumarin has anti-coagulant properties, and the cassia forms of cinnamon contain very much higher levels than the true cinnamon. Excessive use of the former can have serious effects on blood coagulation, and can pose a health hazard. Unfortunately, if cinnamon is bought in powder form, there is no way of knowing which form one is buying. With sticks, however, it is possible to tell by the thickness of the bark layers. The cassia forms have a thicker layer of bark, and the true cinnamon has a very thin layer, which tends to curl round itself. By examining the end of the stick, the distinction can usually be made.
Both forms have been known and used from remote antiquity. The spices were imported into Egypt by about 2000 BC. There are a number of references to both cinnamon and cassia in the bible. Moses was commanded to use both sweet cinnamon and cassia in the holy anointing oil (Exodus 30:23-25). In Proverbs (7:17) there is a reference to scenting with ‘myrrh, aloes and cinnamon’, and in the Psalms (48:8) with ‘myrrh, aloes and cassia’. Theophrastus gives rather a good account of the plant, with a curious method of harvesting the spice: worms eat away the wood and leave the bark behind.
Larvae of the cinnamon butterfly Chilasa clytia, and the leaf miner Conopomorpha civica are major pests of the plant in India and Sri Lanka.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2013
Page last updated 15th March 2018