The Cinnamon we have come to love in everything from sweet treats to spicy curry to candles and holiday decorations to even natural garden deterrents is the inner bark of a small tropical tree originating on the Asian continent. We have enjoyed the spicy-hot medicine and invigorating scent of cinnamon for at least several thousand years spanning the African and Asian continents and spreading from there as worldwide trade developed. Although there are a variety of species in the Cinnamomum genus, four have made it to the world stage, so to speak.
What’s the Difference between Cassia and Ceylon Cinnamon?
And, does it really matter?
Of the four big cinnamon’s of commerce, Cassia and Ceylon Cinnamon, C. aromaticaum and C. verum respectively, are the stars we’re most likely to lay our hands on here in the West. Cassia cinnamon, also known as Chinese cinnamon or C. aromaticaum, is the more cold-tolerant and hardy of the pair. Cinnamomum aromaticaum can handle an occasional light frost, quite possibly because it’s also the hotter and spicier of the two big cinnamons. Ceylon cinnamon, which originates in in Sri Lanka in the area formerly known as Ceylon, is also called True Cinnamon or C. verum, quite possibly because it’s flavor is more delicate, layered, and nuanced. Ceylon cinnamon is the one favored by bakers and patisseries worldwide for fine culinary delights, and Cassia cinnamon is the one most of us encounter on almost a daily basis.
So what about the other two big cinnamons, you might be asking right about now. They are both closer in flavor and punch to Cassia cinnamon and have been used interchangeably for C. aromaticaum in trade for centuries. Cinnamomum burmmannii, aka Java cinnamon or Indonesian cinnamon, comes primarily from Indonesia. Cinnamomum loureiroi, aka Saignon or Vietnamese cinnamon comes from Vietnam. Both are commonly used as food flavorings and are distilled to create essential oils. All four types have been and can be used interchangeably as medicine.
Folks living in Tropical regions may well find Cinnamon growing in their backyards, neighborhood parks, and in the wild. All of the Cinnamomum species like warm temperatures with medium to high humidity and slightly dry soil. On it’s own, Cinnamon will grow into a small evergreen tree amid a taller canopy where it can get lightly filtered sunshine.
When it’s cultivated, it’s usually grown as coppice, much like willow is grown for basketry uses. After the tree is well-established, farmers cut it very near the ground so that a whole bunch of runners will grow up, forming a shrub that’s pruned for straight branch growth. Folks in tropical regions harvest cinnamon bark by cutting either old growth, like the trunk or thicker branches, or younger twigs. The outer bark is scraped away and the inner bark is harvested and dried for use as the spice with which we’re all familiar.
Cinnamon as Houseplant
For those of us who live in sub-tropical and colder climates, Cinnamon makes a hearty house plant. It can grow up to 8 feet (2.5 m) potted and likes the slightly filtered sunshine of our brightest rooms. When Cinnamon is getting the perfect lighting, its new leaves grow in shades of brilliant cinnamon-red that fade into a lush, deep green. When the light is too bright, they fade into a lighter green that never quite develops into the deep green of healthy wild trees.
In either case, Cinnamon’s evergreen nature makes it a beautiful potted plant year-round that may well grace you with dainty white flowers in the spring. Some varieties will even produce plump black seeds under the right conditions. Cinnamon grows from cuttings or seeds, although if you’re planning on planting seeds you’ll want to plant them as soon as possible after they’re harvested. Cinnamon seeds have short period of viability. Be sure to strip away the plump outer layer before you plant them, too. Use a well-drained soil in the garden or in the pot, as cinnamon would prefer a light drought to damp feet any day.
Cinnamon loves a little light organic fertilizer every 2-3 months and generally dry soil conditions. Aim for an 8-3-9 fertilizer, if you’re using a granular style. If you live in a mild climate, your potted cinnamon would love to spend some time outdoors on the patio or in dappled shade through the summer months. When the temperatures dip below 60 F (15C), though, you’ll want to move your tree back indoors or into the greenhouse. Most varieties of Cinnamon will suffer severely when the temperatures drop as low as 40 F (4 C), so be sure to protect them if the weather’s turning cold.
Cinnamon Leaves and Twigs as Medicine
Whether you wildcraft cinnamon from your local forest or grow it in a pot, you can gain the anti-microbial, warming, medicinal properties of cinnamon without cutting it to the ground every couple of years. Cinnamon leaves offer a mild version of the same medicine that’s found in the inner bark. You can steep them in hot water to use as a fresh infusion-style tea or fry them to add to your next curry. They’re often used as a substitute for bay leaves in climates where they grow. Just like with bay leaves, be sure to take them out of your dish before serving. You can also prune the smaller growth on your cinnamon plant back regularly, using the twigs as you would whole cinnamon sticks. They are fragrant and spicy all on their own.
Herbal Nerd Society Members…Look for more Spicy articles on Cinnamon as Herbal Medicine this month!