Cloves – What Are They All About?

By David Hugonin

Botanical Name:- Syzygium aromaticum Synonyms:- Eugenia aromaticum or Eugenia caryophyllata

Cloves are the aromatic dried flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtaceae.The tree is native to Indonesia and used as a spice in cuisine all over the world. The name derives from French “clou”, a nail, purely because the buds vaguely resemble small irregular nails in shape. Cloves are harvested primarily in Zanzibar, Indonesia and Madagascar nowdays but they are also grown in India, and Sri Lanka.

The clove tree is an evergreen which grows to a height ranging from 10-20 m, having large oval leaves and crimson flowers in numerous groups of terminal clusters. The flower buds are a pale colour at first and then gradually become green, after which they develop into a bright red, when they are ready for collecting. Cloves are harvested when 1.5 to 2 cm long, and consist of a long calyx, terminating in four spreading sepals, and four unopened petals which form a small ball in the centre; the familiar shape of the whole clove.

Cloves can be used in cooking either in their whole or in their ground form, but as they are extremely strong they are used very sparingly. The spice is used throughout Europe, The Americas and Asia and is also smoked in a type of cigarette locally known as kretek in Indonesia and in occasional coffee bars in the West, mixed with other aromatics to create spliffs (joints).

Cloves are also an important incense material in Chinese and Japanese culture. Clove essential oil is used in aromatherapy and oil of cloves is widely used to treat toothache in dental emergencies as it numbs the area of pain.

Cloves have historically been used in Indian cuisine (both North Indian and South Indian). In the north indian cuisine, it is used in almost every sauce or side dish made, mostly by grinding it up along with other spices. They are also a key ingredient in traditional spiced chai tea, the sickly sweet, mostly made from buffalo milk, tea, so popular in India, along with green cardamoms and a host of other spices. In south indian cuisine, Cloves find extensive use in the biryani dish (similar to the pilaf, but with the addition of local spice taste), and is normally added whole to enhance the presentation and flavour of the rice.

Along with the recreational and culinary uses of cloves, they are also said to be a natural anthelmintic.


Until modern times, cloves grew only on a few of the islands in the Maluku archepelago (historically called the Spice Islands), including Bacan, Makian, Moti, Ternate, and Tidore. Nevertheless, they found their way west to the Middle East and Europe well before the time of Christ. Archaeologists have found cloves within a ceramic vessel in Syria along with evidence dating the find to within a few years of 1721 BC.

In the 4th century BC, Chinese leaders in the Han Dynasty required those who addressed them to chew cloves so as to freshen their breath. Cloves, along with nutmeg and pepper, were highly prized in Roman times, and Pliny the Elder once famously complained that “there is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces”. Cloves were traded by Arabs during the Middle Ages in the profitable Indian Ocean trade.

In the late fifteenth century, Portugal took over the Indian Ocean trade, including the trade in cloves and other spices, due to the Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain and a separate treaty with the sultan of Ternate. The Portuguese brought large quantities of cloves to Europe, mainly from the Maluku Islands. Clove was then one of the most valuable spices, a kilogram costing around the same price as 7 grams of gold.

The trade later became dominated by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. With great difficulty the French succeeded in introducing the clove tree into Mauritius in the year 1770; subsequently their cultivation was introduced into Guiana, Brazil, most of the West Indies, and Zanzibar, where the majority of cloves are grown today.

In Britain, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cloves were worth at least their weight in gold, due to the high price of importing them.

The clove has become a commercial ‘success’, with products such as clove drops being released and enjoyed by die-hard clove fans.

Cloves, a distinctly recognisable fragrance and flavour.

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