The following blogpost is part of a blog party on warming herbs, graciously hosted by Yael Grauer. You can see the whole party here.
Intro: For the past two years at HerbMentor.com we have studied one herb a month. This gives us a chance to really experience each plant and learn about it in many ways. Members of HerbMentor.com have the option of filling out monthly study sheets to both increase their learning and record their experiences. Throughout each month new videos, recipes, how to articles, interviews with innovative herbalists, and other herbal content is posted. In the community forums members are encouraged to post questions, share stories and recipes, and offer general guidance. Every other month, John and I host an Herb Circle Gathering where members can call in and we can interact on a more personal level. For the month of January 2010 we will be studying the sweet, warming, and intoxicating spice, cinnamon. This article was originally posted on HerbMentor.com as the welcoming overview of our studies.
Scientific Name: Cinnamomum aromaticum, Cinnamomum cassia, Cinnamomum zeylanicum
Parts used: Bark (prepared as sticks, chips, powder, or essential oil), twigs, dried flowers.
Properties: Aromatic stimulant, warming, demulcent, sweet, astringent, anodyne, hypoglycemic, anti-oxidant.
Many of us in the northern hemisphere are shrouded in the darkness of winter. Herbaceous plants hibernate in the Earth as we stay cozy in our homes. At HerbMentor.com we chose to study cinnamon this time of year, not only because everyone will have access to it, but also because it is a warming tonic perfect for this cold time of year.
Cinnamon bark by any other name would certainly taste as sweet… Or so the saying goes.
There is some confusion concerning cinnamon as the common name refers to several different species of cinnamon that are similar, but not the same.
In the United States if you buy ground cinnamon from the store you are most likely buying Cinnamomum cassia (cassia cinnamon). This cinnamon is native to Indonesia and now grows in tropical climates all around the world.
In other parts of the world, Cinnamomum zeylanicum is considered the “true cinnamon” and is also called ceylon cinnamon.
Ceylon cinnamon is considered to have sweeter and lighter flavor, while cassia cinnamon is considered to be spicier and more pungent. Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka or Ceylon. Referring to the difference in tastes between these two spices, chefs prefer cassia cinnamon in savory dishes such as meats and soups and prefer the sweeter Ceylon cinnamon in dessert dishes.
There are actually over a 100 different varieties of cinnamon trees out in the world, but these two are the most commercially available. When it’s necessary to distinguish between these two kinds of cinnamon, I’ll refer to them as either cassia cinnamon or ceylon cinnamon. You can buy both of these varieties at Mountain Rose Herbs.
This aromatic spice has a rich history that reaches at least as far back as 2700 BC where it was first written about in Chinese texts. The Chinese continue to use cinnamon extensively and distinguish uses between the bark (rou gui) and twigs (gui zhi). According to Lesley Tierra, among the many uses of cinnamon the twigs are used for fevers with an absence of sweating while the bark is used when there is copious sweating.
We find cinnamon in the Bible when Moses is told to make holy anointing oil using two different kinds of cinnamon. The ancient Egyptians also used cinnamon not only to flavor food but also in the embalming process.
Cinnamon was a highly regarded spice worth an incredible amount. In the 1st century C.E., Pliny the Elder described in writings that cinnamon was 15 times the value of silver per weight. For centuries the Arabs controlled the cinnamon trade and there were many fantastical stories about where cinnamon came from and how it was cultivated in order to enhance the magic surrounding this sweet foreign spice and keep prices high.
Battles were fought over cinnamon. During the 1500s the Portuguese colonized Sri Lanka and began to control the cinnamon spice trade. By 1658 the Dutch East India Company had taken over operations. Finally, by the late 1700s the English defeated the Dutch and took control of the island, but by this time the cinnamon trade was declining due to the introduction of the more abundant cassia cinnamon cultivation in other parts of the world.
Cinnamon trees are in the Laurel family. Although they can grow up to 60 feet tall, the trees under cultivation are heavily pruned in order to encourage the tree to generate small shoots.
They produce leaves that are ovate-oblong in shape and are about 3 to 7 inches long.
The flowers have a distinct aroma and when in bloom bees and other pollinating insects swarm the air, irresistibly attracted to the sweet scent. They are arranged in panicles (similar to lilac flowers) and have a greenish color.
The fruit is a small purple berry containing a single seed. Sometimes these flowers are dried and also used as a spice.
Cultivation of cinnamon is a long, arduous process requiring hard work. This traditional method has been passed down for centuries and remains mainly unchanged.
Trees are grown on plantations and are heavily pruned when they are two years old. This creates a lot of bushy shoots at the base of the tree.
These shoots are harvested after a monsoon, which makes them easier to process. Then the hard work begins by separating the inner bark from the rest of the tree. Layers of these inner barks are pressed together and then laid out to dry whereby the bark curls together to form the cinnamon “sticks” also called cinnamon quills. After they are properly dried, they are then cut to a specific size and shipped around the world.
Although we are most familiar with cinnamon as a culinary spice that really goes well with apples and pastries, cinnamon has a long list of medicinal attributes.
Its pleasing, spicy, aromatic, and sweet taste combined with its warming attributes can ease digestive woes by increasing circulation and moving along stagnate digestion. This makes it useful for a variety of digestive complaints including indigestion, gas, and cramping.
Physiomedicalist William Cook reports, “Cinnamon bark is one of the pleasantest of the spices, warming, diffusibly stimulating, and leaving behind a gentle astringent influence. It acts upon the stomach, and through it upon the whole sympathetic system–also promoting assimilation, and stimulating the entire nervous and arterial organisms to a moderate extent.”
It can be used to increase general circulation of the body in cases where there are chronically cold hands and feet. Or, it can be used in more acute situations like colds and the flu in which the person feels shivery and cold. Herbalist Lesley Tierra says, “Cinnamon bark also leads the body’s metabolic fires back to their source, alleviating symptoms of a hot upper body and cold lower body.”
In the HerbMentor Radio show of December 2009, jim mcdonald gives an almost two-hour lesson on Vitalist treatments of fevers. During that session he discusses using cinnamon for fevers in cases in which the body externally feels cold and clammy but there is copious sweating, as well as diarrhea. In this way you can warm the exterior, astringe copious sweating, and tone loose bowels to avoid dehydration.
In the simple remedies section of HerbMentor.com, John has posted a cinnamon spiced milk recipe. This is a nutritive beverage that warms the body, supports digestion, and can help tone the lower digestive tract to relieve loose or runny bowels.
Cinnamon has an affinity for the mouth and teeth. As an anodyne, cinnamon has been used to alleviate toothaches. You can even use cinnamon powder to brush your teeth for a whiter, brighter smile and fresh breath. The astringent and anti-microbial properties of cinnamon will help support oral health that goes beyond cosmetic improvements.
Cinnamon is a common ingredient in chai teas. A chai spiced tea can be a great base for administering other herbs, especially those to alleviate cold symptoms or that don’t taste as pleasing. You can find Kimberly’s awesome Immune Building Chai recipe in the HerbMentor news section.
Studies have shown cinnamon to be effective in relieving arthritic pain. In a study at Copenhagen University, patients were given a mixture of half a teaspoon of cinnamon powder along with one tablespoon of honey every morning before breakfast. After one week they had significant relief in arthritis pain and could walk without pain within one month.
Helping to warm the interior and clear stagnation also makes cinnamon a great ally for menstrual cramping. You can make a basic chai tea for this purpose while also adding crampbark (Viburnum opulus) to the mix for increased anti-spasmodic properties. You can see my blog post on this here. Cinnamon not only relieves cramping, but according to Felter and Lloyd’s Kings American Dispensory cinnamon is specifically indicated for “Post-partum and other uterine hemorrhage, with profuse flow, cold extremities, and pallid surface.”
Cinnamon has been making headline news lately for its ability to decrease insulin resistance and lower blood sugar levels in diabetics. Most of these studies involve cassia cinnamon. People with insulin-dependent diabetes need to consult their doctor about taking cinnamon so that injected insulin levels can be adjusted as necessary.
Effective against Candida overgrowth, cinnamon can be used to stop yeast infections that are resistant to western anti-yeast drugs. High blood sugar levels can be a contributing cause of chronic yeast infections and I find it interesting that cinnamon can help in that arena as well.
Cinnamon is such an effective blood thinner that if you are taking blood thinning medications it is not advised to take therapeutic doses of cinnamon at the same time.
Cinnamon offers nutrient benefits as well. It is high in manganese and a good source of calcium and iron.
For the next two months we’ll be focusing on learning all that we can from cinnamon and this spice offers a myriad of ways in which to do that.
You can use it in cooking, not only for sweet desserts, but in rich savory dishes as well. The Herbalpedia (an extensive digital encyclopedia of herbs) entry for cinnamon offers many different recipes. Add it to a variety of tea blends for a sweet spicy addition.
You can tincture cinnamon, use it as a liniment or massage oil, brush your teeth with the powder, try it in warmed milk or hot cocoa, or simply mixed with honey.
If you’ve never had a cinnamon shrub before, I highly recommend Kimberly’s incredible recipe for the delicious beverage.
Please note that cinnamon is contra-indicated during pregnancy. Culinary amounts are fine but it is best to avoid it in extremely large doses.