Cinnamon, or Cinnamomum verum as it is now botanically known, is not only a superb tropical garden tree, but is one of our oldest known spices.
It was used in embalming procedures in ancient Egypt and as incense in both ancient Egyptian and Greek temples. It was also used in Greek and Mediterranean regions as a flavoring in wine making, as is recorded by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79).
Such widespread use in ancient times is an indicator of the extent of trade routes in those days, as cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka and southwestern regions of India.
These days Indonesia, southern China and Vietnam are the largest producers of cinnamon in the world, but Sri Lanka still produces the best quality cinnamon.
Indeed, the original name of the species (C. zeylanicum) is the Latinized version of the original place of origin, Ceylon, which later became known as Sri Lanka. In Singhalese, it is known as Kurundu, or more generally as cinnamon.
In historical times, around the start of the Christian era, it is recorded that 350 grams of cinnamon was worth 5 kilograms of silver! (I’ve converted the figures to reflect today’s metric weight equivalents). It is also recorded that in AD 65, Nero burned Rome’s yearly supply of cinnamon at the funeral of his wife, Poppaea Sabina, after he had murdered her!
In subsequent times (the mid-17th century) cinnamon was the main incentive in the formation of the Dutch East India Company, along with cloves and nutmeg. In about 1770, the Company started the first formal cinnamon plantations in Sri Lanka. Prior to this time, all production was extracted from wild growing jungle trees.
The tree is one of about eight species in the group used as a source of spice. The other species are of lesser commercial importance, but several also make excellent garden trees.
C. verum is native to wet jungle areas of Sri Lanka but is easily grown in most tropical and sub-tropical regions when provided with deep humus rich soil and adequate year-round watering.
Left unpruned it will make a shapely, dense crowned, evergreen tree to about 5 or 6 metres. Under ideal conditions, this height can reach up to 20 metres, but this is very rare in garden settings.
New growth ranges from a brilliant bright pink to a rusty red that slowly fades through cream shades and eventually becomes the bright green of the mature foliage. This seasonal flush of colour greatly adds to the tree’s horticultural appeal and is a striking feature on a well-grown tree at the start of the rainy season.
The spice is actually the inner bark of young stems and branches. The Sinhalese people have a unique method of growing the tree, which is usually planted on steep hillsides, where tea (Camellia sinensis) is not economical.
The procedure begins with planting multiple seeds into a container, so that each pot will contain 3 to 5 or more seedlings. These are grown till they reach a height of around 30 to 50cm, when they are relocated to the hillside selected for their cultivation.
With fertile, volcanic origin soils and almost year-round good rainfall, the plants grow quickly into saplings. After a year, they are pruned, (coppiced actually) so that regrowth is fast and straight, with little or no branching. The closeness of the stems actually aids this process, which is why multiple seedlings are used in the original planting.
After a year of growth, specialist harvesters are brought in to remove most of the new growths. They are always cut leaving a short stump, from which the next season’s growth will emerge. This process is called coppicing.
The speed and accuracy of the harvesters is quite amazing. Stems are defoliated and then taken into a shed for the removal of the bark. This is always done at the height of the rainy season, when sap is flowing freely, and bark is easily removed. Bark will not peel easily during dry weather.
After removal, bark is placed under damp jute sacks for a day or so, where it undergoes a slight fermentation. After this process, the outer bark is scraped away, and the inner bark is set aside to dry in the air. The thin white sticks left after harvest, are sun dried and used as firewood in many villages.
It is a rare treat to wake up to a morning cup of home brewed tea, made over a fire of burning cinnamon sticks, where their flavor has permeated the water and created a subtle chai-like beverage.
The inner bark dries under shade and as it dries, curls into the typical ‘quills’ known in our shops. These quills are tied into large bundles of about 25kg and around a metre tall. Value is reckoned on the diameter of the quills, their length (short broken pieces are not saleable but are used domestically) and of their fragrance. Buyers and brokers visit the farms and bid competitively for the harvest.
At the time of writing, the farmer will receive about 2,200 Sri Lankan Rupees per kilogram. This equates to about 12 US dollars per kilogram. Not a lot, considering the outlays for the completely manual harvesting and grading that goes into the production of the crop.
The essential oils in cinnamon exist in all parts of the plant, but leaves are often left to rot on the ground. In the past, local distillation of leaves, bark scrapings and broken bark pieces provided a worthwhile option to produce a valuable essential oil, sold on European and American markets. However, this option seems no longer practiced in the village where I was involved with a small plantation.
From personal experience, I have found that fresh leaves, when blitzed in a food processor, add a great taste and texture to a green curry paste.
I have grown C. verum in many places in tropical Australia as well and have always found it a most obliging tree. It grows quickly, is evergreen, provides a showy display when new pink leaves flush at the start of the wet season and it appears to be basically pest free.
The only pest I have ever had a problem with was in Darwin where the local green tree ant sews leaves together to provide a waterproof nest in which they live and raise their young. While unsightly, these nests do not harm the tree, and removing them will discourage the ants. An oil-soaked strip of cloth tied around the trunk of the tree will prevent further access, providing there is no aerial access from nearby branches.
How to Propagate Cinnamon
Cinnamon is easily propagated from fresh seed when this is available, but in its absence, new plants can be easily produced using the marcot technique, or from cuttings of slightly hardened, new season growth.
Marcottage is performed on hardened new season growth. A suitable shoot is partially defoliated 30-60cm down the stem from its top. This region is then ring-barked using a sharp knife or surgical blade, and a 1 cm wide strip of bark is removed.
If this bark does not come away easily and cleanly, the stem is either too old or the timing is wrong. Marcots only work for cinnamon in the mid to late wet season.
The ring-barked area is packed with a liberal amount of wet sphagnum moss and this is covered with a piece of clear plastic, that is then rolled to form a cylinder around the ring-barked portion of stem. This cylinder is secured top and bottom with tape or something similar to make a good seal. This is essential to keep the moisture in the moss while roots form.
The whole package is then covered with a piece of aluminium foil, shiny side out. This has a two-fold function. It reflects light and thus keeps the moss relatively cool, but most importantly, it hides the developing roots from hungry birds and animals (that think the roots are worms or grubs) and will tear the plastic to reach them and often damage or destroy the marcot.
After about four weeks the foil can be carefully removed to check rooting development. If the moss is full of newly developed roots, the marcot may be removed from the parent tree. If not, replace the foil and wait a few more weeks. At this time, it’s essential to prune back any new or soft shoot growth and effectively reduce the foliage carried by about one third of the total.
The marcot is then potted, making sure that foil, plastic and any ties are removed at this time. After potting, the new plant is kept in light dappled shade and watered frequently until new growth has formed and hardened off. The plant is then ready for field planting or repotting to a large tub if it is to be kept as a patio plant.
Cinnamon thrives in rich, heavily composted soil, as it is relatively deep rooted. Hard, shallow, impoverished soils will give weak, poor plants that are not productive. An annual mulching of compost and well-rotted animal manure will ensure on-going soil fertility and a twice-yearly application of composted or pelletized chicken manure will ensure excellent growth.
In the right area, cinnamon may be used as a shade tree, a street or avenue tree or an effective garden feature. It may also be planted in a large tub and used as a patio plant that can provide a regular source of leaves and twigs for the adventurous chef.
Header image: Explorer Bob