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True cinnamon grows right here on the Big Island

Updated: 
July 6, 2014 - 12:05am

Cinnamon is a dense evergreen tree native to the rain forests of Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Malabar Coast of India. It also grows well in Hawaii where adult trees have an attractive rounded crown with a mass of small aromatic leaves that provide good shade in addition to flavoring possibilities.

Of the more than 250 trees in the Cinnamomum genus, three are commonly grown in Hawaii as street trees or for shade. All three have a similar growth habit and can be identified by their leaves which have three parallel veins and a clove-like aroma when crushed.

All Cinnamomum species are members of the Lauraceae family which includes other commercially important plants such as avocado, spices including bay laurel and sassafras and many trees grown for timber.

Only one of the Cinnamomum specimens is known as true cinnamon, but it is known by several names; some old, some new. The older names include Ceylon cinnamon or Cinnamomum zeylanicum. The current botanical name for this genus and species is Cinnamomum verum.

True cinnamon is grown commercially in Southeast Asia as well as Brazil, the Caribbean, India and Madagascar. The positive identification of true cinnamon is sometimes confused. Several other members of the Cinnamomum genus are sold as cinnamon but are referred to in the trade as “cassia” and are actually a different product. Two cassia varieties are native to Arabia, Ethiopia and China and another is native to Northern India. Today, cassia is mainly produced in China, Vietnam and Indonesia.

True cinnamon spice can be identified by its lighter color and the thinner, more crumbly texture of its “sticks” or “quills.” It also has a less sharp, milder and sweeter flavor. Though most of the imported commercial cinnamon sold in the U.S. is actually cassia, we are lucky here on the Big Island to have true cinnamon growing and available for purchase from sources served by the distributor Adaptations Inc. Most of the cinnamon trees available in area nurseries are also true cinnamon.

Cinnamon has been used throughout history as a spice as well as a medicine. References to its use appear as early as 2000 B.C. in Egypt. Both cassia and cinnamon are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The first Greek reference to kasia is found in a poem by Sappho in the seventh century B.C. The Roman writer Pliny reported an early spice trade across the Red Sea to Rome and Alexandria served as the North African shipping port for spices including cinnamon at the time. It was not until 1270 A.D. that the true source of the spice became known to the general public. The Portuguese had a monopoly on the cinnamon trade in Europe starting in 1518 until the Dutch took over around 1640. By 1800, the British had taken control of the spice trade. Cinnamon remains popular today but no longer has the impact it once had on the world market.

A cinnamon tree was first planted in the Hawaiian Islands by William Hillebrand sometime between 1850 and 1870 on his property in Lower Nuuanu Valley on Oahu, which is now part of Foster Botanical Garden.

Cinnamon “best variety” trees arrived here from Jamaica to serve the landscape trade around 1885 and were widely planted.

The true cinnamon tree can grow to more than 30 feet in ideal conditions with a round spreading crown. The leaves are ovate with a pointed tip and are distinguished by a center vein and two others that run parallel. The flowers are very small with cream colored petals and yellow stamens. Once pollinated, they produce a small green fruit that turns dark purple, nearly black as it ripens.

The fruit contains seeds which can be used for propagation. Though it has a pleasant aroma like clove when bruised, the fruit is not edible.

Cinnamon trees grow best in Hawaii at upper elevations where rainfall is plentiful. They require little care unless you want to harvest the bark for the spice. Organic matter or small amounts of fertilizer can be applied several times a year. Though the trees need regular watering, they grow best in soil that drains well. The highly aromatic leaves and bark seem to protect the plant from serious pest attacks.

Harvesting cinnamon spice requires coppicing — cutting the adult tree low — after about four years to encourage sprouts to grow near the base of the stump. These will be ready to harvest in about four years, or once the diameter of the shoot reaches a minimum of 2 inches.

The shoots are usually harvested by cutting them into 4- to 36-inch-long pieces and scraping the external bark off. The cinnamon flavor is strongest in the inner bark or cambium layer of the shoot. It is removed by cutting it with a sharp tool into strips or pounding it to loosen it then removing it into chips and strips. The bark is then dried at a low temperature for several days away from sunlight. The resulting cinnamon sticks are then sold as quills or milled into a fine powder.

Cinnamon can be propagated in several ways. Seeds can be found inside the fruit. They are short-lived but if planted soon after harvesting and removing he pulp, they should germinate in two to three weeks. Vegetative propagation methods for cinnamon include using cuttings, layering or dividing older rootstocks. Division will shorten the wait time to harvest. Seedlings may take four to six months to be ready for outplanting.

The clove-like flavor in the leaves and the cinnamon flavor in the bark are the results of compounds produced by the tree. These compounds include eugenol and cinnamaldehyde which have been shown to have numerous health benefits. Cinnamon is believed to provide antioxidant benefits and to contain antimicrobial, antiseptic, antifungal and antibiotic properties.

Cinnamon has been used to regulate blood sugar, aid in weight loss programs and help control Type 2 diabetes. It is also an important warming herb in traditional Chinese medicine. Its stimulant and astringent properties may also make it helpful in treating infections. In excessive doses, the compounds in cassia cinnamon can be toxic. For medical doses check with naturopathic doctors or books about natural remedies. Some research is cited in an article on cinnamon at whfoods.com, where you’ll also find some culinary uses and recipes to try.

If you have space to plant a cinnamon tree and let it grow to maturity, you can enjoy harvesting lower branches and the leaves for flavoring. If you want to start producing your own quills, you will need to control the growth and the tree will take less space. Several area nurseries carry the trees and others can order them for you.

The information in this column was reviewed for accuracy by Tane Datta a cinnamon grower and owner of the agricultural product distribution company Adaptations Inc.

Diana Duff is an organic farmer, plant adviser and consultant.