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Cinnamon foliage and flowers
Cinnamon foliage and flowers
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Laurales
Family: Lauraceae
Genus: Cinnamomum
Species: C. verum
Cinnamomum verum

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, synonym C. zeylanicum) is a small evergreen tree 10-15 m tall, belonging to the family Lauraceae, native to Sri Lanka and Southern India. The bark is widely used as a spice.

Cinnamomum verum, from Koehler's Medicinal-Plants (1887)
Cinnamomum verum, from Koehler's Medicinal-Plants (1887)

The leaves are ovate-oblong in shape, 7-18 cm long. The flowers, which are arranged in panicles, have a greenish colour and a rather disagreeable odour. The fruit is a purple 1 cm berry containing a single seed.

Cinnamon is harvested by growing the tree for two years and then coppicing it. The next year a dozen or so shoots will form from the roots. These shoots are then stripped of their bark and left to dry. Only the thin (0.5 mm) inner bark is used; the outer woody portion is removed, leaving metre long cinnamon strips which curl into rolls ("quills") on drying; each dried quill comprises strips from numerous shoots packed together. These quills are then cut to 5-10 cm long pieces for sale.

The best cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, but the tree is also grown commercially at Tellicherry in Java, Sumatra, the West Indies, Brazil, Vietnam, Madagascar, and Egypt. Sri Lanka cinnamon of fine quality is a very thin smooth bark, with a light-yellowish brown colour, a highly fragrant odour, and a peculiarly sweet, warm and pleasing aromatic taste.

Its flavour is due to an aromatic oil which it contains to the extent of from 0.5 to 1%. This essential oil is prepared by roughly pounding the bark, macerating it in sea-water, and then quickly distilling the whole. It is of a golden-yellow colour, with the characteristic odour of cinnamon and a very hot aromatic taste. The pungent taste and scent come from cinnamic aldehyde or cinnamaldehyde and, by the absorption of oxygen as it ages, it darkens in colour and develops resinous compounds. Chemical components of the essential oil include eugenol, cinnamaldehyde, beta- caryophyllene, linalool and methyl chavicol.


Cinnamon bark is widely used as a spice. It is principally employed in cookery as a condiment and flavouring material, being largely used in the preparation of some kinds of desserts, chocolate and spicy candies and liqueurs. In the Middle East, it is often used in savory dishes of chicken and lamb. In America, cinnamon and sugar are often used to flavor cereals and fruits, especially apples. It can also be used in pickling. In medicine it acts like other volatile oils and once had a reputation as a cure for colds. It has also been used to treat diarrhea and other problems of the digestive system [1].

Cinnamon is high in antioxidant activity [2] [3]. The essential oil of cinnamon also has antimicrobial properties [4]. This property may allow cinnamon to extend the shelf life of foods.

In the media, "cinnamon" has been reported to have remarkable pharmacological effects in the treatment of type II diabetes. However, the plant material used in the study [5] was actually Cassia, as opposed to true cinnamon. The confusion in nomenclature is described below. Please refer to Cassia's health issues for more information about its health benefits.

Cinnamon and cassia

Sticks of true cinnamon bark
Sticks of true cinnamon bark

The name cinnamon is correctly used to refer to Ceylon Cinnamon, also known as "true cinnamon" (from the botanical name C. verum). However, the related species Cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum) is sometimes sold labeled as cinnamon, distinguished from true cinnamon as "Indonesian cinnamon" or "Bastard cinnamon". Ceylon cinnamon, using only the thin inner bark, has a finer, less dense and more crumbly texture, and is considered to be less strong than cassia [6]. Cassia is generally a medium to dark reddish brown, and as the whole bark is used, is thicker (2-3 mm thick) and hard and woody in texture. Most of the cinnamon sold in supermarkets in the United States is actually cassia.

The two barks when whole are easily distinguished, and their microscopic characteristics are also quite distinct. When powdered bark is treated with tincture of iodine (a test for starch), little effect is visible in the case of pure cinnamon of good quality, but when cassia is present a deep-blue tint is produced, the intensity of the coloration depending on the proportion of cassia.


Cinnamon has been known from remote antiquity, and it was so highly prized among ancient nations that it was regarded as a gift fit for monarchs and other great potentates. It was imported to Egypt from China as early as 2000 BC, and is mentioned in the Bible in Exodus 30:23, where Moses is commanded to use both sweet cinnamon ( Hebrew קִנָּמוֹן, qinnāmôn) and cassia, and in Proverbs 7:17-18, where the lover's bed is perfumed with myrrh, aloe and cinnamon. It is also alluded to by Herodotus and other classical writers. It was commonly used on funeral pyres in Rome, and the Emperor Nero is said to have burned a year's supply of cinnamon at the funeral for his wife Poppaea Sabina, in 65 AD.

In the Middle Ages, the source of cinnamon was a mystery to the western world. Arab traders brought the spice via overland trade routes to Alexandria in Egypt, where it was bought by Venetian traders from Italy who held a monopoly on the spice trade in Europe. The disruption of this trade by the rise of other Mediterranean powers such as the Mameluk Dynasties and the Ottoman Empire was one of many factors which led Europeans to search more widely for other routes to Asia.

Portuguese traders finally discovered Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at the end of the fifteenth century, and restructured the traditional production of cinnamon by the salagama caste. The Portuguese established a fort on the island in 1518, and brutally protected their own monopoly for over a hundred years.

Dutch traders finally dislodged the Portuguese by allying with the inland Ceylon kingdom of Kandy. They established a trading post in 1638, took control of the factories by 1640, and expelled all remaining Portuguese by 1658. "The shores of the island are full of it", a Dutch captain reported, "and it is the best in all the Orient: when one is downwind of the island, one can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea" (Braudel 1984, p. 215).

The Dutch East India Company continued to overhaul the methods of harvesting in the wild, and eventually began to cultivate their own trees.

The English dislodged the Dutch in 1796, even as the importance of the monopoly of Ceylon declined. Cultivation of the cinnamon tree spread to other areas, the more common cassia bark became more acceptable to consumers, and coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate began to outstrip the popularity of traditional spices.

Related species

  • Cassia
  • Malabathrum
  • Saigon cinnamon
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