The Tree of Spice: Cinnamon

By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator

For many people, cinnamon evokes thoughts of the holiday season, of tasty desserts and of cozy kitchen aromas. And rightly so, for it is such a common and comforting culinary spice.

Despite being a staple of kitchens throughout the world, cinnamon is very much a plant of the tropics. True cinnamon is a small, evergreen tree that is originally native to Sri Lanka. The aromatic bark is the part that is harvested for use in food and herbal preparations. For ages it has been a highly regarded and often mysterious spice… The Greeks used it to flavor their wine and the ancient Egyptians used it in exotic blends for incense to perfume the air.

 By Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen via Wikipedia

By Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen via Wikipedia

There is often some confusion surrounding the different types of cinnamon, since there are actually several species of trees which are sold on the market. True cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, (also called Ceylon cinnamon) is grown in Sri Lanka. There is also Cinnamomum cassia, Chinese cinnamon or cassia, which tends to be more commonly sold in powdered form in the United States. To me, cassia cinnamon has a bolder, spicier taste to it, and true cinnamon is lighter and sweeter. Try both kinds to see which one you prefer.

The first time I ever had cinnamon as a tea — yes, it can be drunk as a tea! — I was on a very small island in the Caribbean. The local people there drink cinnamon for upset stomach and digestive issues. I remember feeling so surprised by the tea — how immediately delicious and sweet and warming it was. It was one of the best things I had tasted!

Several herbal traditions around the world also use cinnamon for digestion as it stimulates and supports weak or stagnant digestive organs. It can be especially useful for nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

 By L. Shyamal via Wikipedia

By L. Shyamal via Wikipedia

I like to think of cinnamon as a more gentle substitute to ginger. We all know how spicy and warming ginger is, and all the great benefits it has for the digestive system… however, for some people dried ginger is just too hot. If you’re like me and ginger root makes you sweat and feel uncomfortable, you probably already have a warm constitution and don’t need something so strong. Try cinnamon bark instead.

Given the inherent warming properties of cinnamon, it has traditionally been used for “cold” conditions such as a weak digestion, cold extremities or poor circulation. It may also be quite helpful for reducing the uncomfortable symptoms of Reynaud's Syndrome. In women, it can be helpful in improving blood flow to the pelvic region, especially in cases of amenorrhea or fibroids.

Cinnamon also seems to play a role in regulating blood sugar and is often recommended for people with diabetes as it can improve insulin utilization. How interesting, then, that it is such a traditional ingredient in sweet, sugar-filled desserts around the world!

Finally, the bark of this wonderful tree possesses anti-inflammatory properties; as such it may help inhibit allergic reactions by reducing the histamine response caused by seasonal or environmental allergies. Blend a bit of cinnamon bark with nettles to help combat a dripping nose or itchy eyes during allergy season.


HOW TO USE CINNAMON:

➤ To make a tea use up to 1 tablespoon of the dried bark per 2 cups of water. Let simmer for 20 minutes in a small saucepan on low heat. Then strain out the bark. You can use whole cinnamon sticks (crushed) or cinnamon chips.

➤ Use cinnamon bark as a more mild substitute for ginger in teas/chai blends if dried ginger is too warming and stimulating.

➤ Sprinkle powdered cinnamon on top of beverages, warmed milk, or desserts.

Note: It is believed that Cassia cinnamon — which is high in natural coumarins — can be damaging to the liver when used in large quantities over time, especially in sensitive individuals. If you use cassia cinnamon, use only in moderate does. Or, choose to use true cinnamon instead which does not contain the high level of coumarins that cassia does.

 Photo by Steph Zabel

Photo by Steph Zabel

RECIPES:

Here are a few fun cold-weather, holiday recipes below. One is for a cinnamon and apple cordial that will help you stay toasty warm in the winter months, and the other is one of my favorite recipes of all-time, my root chai blend. Enjoy!

Cinnamon Apple Cordial

  • 6 cups tart, local apples, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup raw honey (or more to taste)
  • 2 large cinnamon sticks, crushed
  • 1/2 vanilla bean pod, sliced in half
  • brandy to cover

Combine all ingredients in a large glass jar. Shake often to help the honey dissolve. Let infuse for 4-6 weeks then strain through a cheesecloth and store in a clean, dark colored bottle.

Steph’s Root Chai Blend

  • 6 cloves
  • 6 cardamom pods
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorn
  • 1-2 tsp. dried ginger root
  • 1 tsp. dried orange peel
  • 1/2 Tblsp. cinnamon bark (sweet or cassia)
  • 1 Tblsp. burdock root
  • 1 Tblsp. roasted dandelion root (roasted will yield a deeper, darker flavor)
  • 1 Tblsp. roasted chicory root
  • 1 Tblsp. astragalus root

First, grind together the cloves, cardamom and peppercorn in a mortar and pestle. This will help their flavor be dispersed throughout the whole tea. Combine these crushed pieces with the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Store in a tightly capped glass jar. This will make about 5-6 servings of tea. 

To brew the tea, add up to 1 Tblsp. of the chai blend per two cups of water in a small saucepan. Bring everything to a boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer covered at for least 20 minutes. Just be sure to keep an eye on the water level and don't let it evaporate too much. When it is as dark and spicy tasting as you would like, strain out the roots and add milk and honey to taste.

 REFERENCES

Botanical.com
University of Maryland Gazette
Herb Wisdom
Acupuncture Brooklyn  

Steph Zabel, MSc, is an herbalist and educator who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world.  She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual wellness consultations, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, Boston’s community herbal conference.  Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.

*The next Herbstalk event is the Wintergreen Herbal Market taking place on November 26th at the Armory in Somerville! More details can be found here!

This blog series — Herbs and Botanicals— is for general health information only. This Web site is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Users of this Web site should not rely on information provided on this Web site for their own health problems. Any questions regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare provider.