Cloves for Preservation and to Lift the Spirit

Fresh cloves in hand
Raw Clove Flowers-Image via Wikipedia

Two months ago I made a chai tea redolent with cloves, but without milk or sugar.  I put it in my water bottle to drink during the day, but it was pushed behind other bottles and I forgot about it.  Two weeks later there was not one spec of mold floating in the liquid and a quick smell and taste of a few drops revealed no souring.  I was curious and put it back.  Two months after making it shows no growth of organisms or off taste or odor.  Which got me thinking about the Spice Route.

In the ancient time, refrigeration was unavailable, especially in cities where cellars and ice were generally unavailable.  Spices were important not only for food preservation, but to fortify the digestion and to cure food poisoning.  In Europe where there was little tradition of fermenting meat, spices or smoking (often with spices or aromatic wood) were the primary way of dealing with meat that might not be fresh.  Cloves were one of the most important.

Cloves are flower buds of a tropical evergreen tree called Syzygium aromaticum, and formerly known as. Eugenia aromaticum or Eugenia caryophyllata).  They look a little like a hand-hewn nail:  in Italian they are called “chiodi del garofano” or ‘carnation nails,’  while in Mexico they are called “clavos de olor” or “odorous nails”.   It takes 7000 ripe red buds to make a pound of cloves.

Cloves are found in the Philippines and Moluccas (once called “the Spice islands,”) but is now grown and harvested in other tropical countries like Zanzibar, Sumatra, Jamaica, West Indies, and Brazil.  Cloves are recorded as far back as the 3rd century BCE in China.  Archeologists found cloves within a ceramic vessel in Syria along with evidence dating the find to within a few years of 1721 BCE.  Pliny the Elder indicates that they were used by the ancient Romans.  During the Middle Ages, they were traded to Europeans by the Arabs. In the late fifteenth century, Portugal took over the Indian Ocean trade, including cloves.  The voyage of Christopher Columbus was financed by the Spanish in the 16th century to wrest control away from the Portuguese.  Clove was then one of the most valuable spices with a kilogram costing around 7 g of gold.  When the Dutch gained control of the Spice Islands in the 18th century, they  smuggled seedlings of clove and nutmeg to their colonial island, Mauritius.and finally to Zanzibar, which became one of the world’s biggest exporters of cloves. Indonesia and Madagascar are also major exporters.

Cloves work not only on preserving foods, but also on digestion.  The spice is carminative which means it eases digestion, antimicrobial, anthelmintic which means it kills worms and parasites, it enhances peristalsis, to prevent constipation of the qi stagnation type.  It is an anodyne, so clove oil is used in dentistry to kill pain.  It is used in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine.  In West Africa, the Yorubas use cloves infused in water as a treatment for stomach upsets, vomiting and diarrhea. The infusion is called Ogun Jedi-jedi, the name of which invokes their great god Ogun.

Dried cloves
Image via Wikipedia

Cloves are a great example of letting food be your medicine.  They were part of the cuisine of both north and south India, are used in Vietnamese the broth of Phở.  In India, the use in cuisine reflects the warming quality of the herb:  it is used sparingly in the south, primarily in the winter, while in the north it is used broadly in almost all rich or spicy dishes as an ingredient of a wonderfully aromatic mix named garam masala. The Dutch use it in cheeses and Christmas speculaas, reflecting the warming and fat-digesting properties of the herb.  A related English use is to spike the Christmas ham.

In Chinese medicine cloves or ding xiang are considered spicy, warm and aromatic, entering the Kidney, Spleen and Stomach meridians. The herb is warming to the middle, treats hicough, directs energy downward and tonifies yang.  Because the herb is so warming it is contraindicated in any persons with fire symptoms and according to classical sources should not be used for anything except cold from yang deficiency. The herb should not be used by people with  hot conditions from excess heat.

In Ayurveda the herb is also used to warm the body.  Cloves are considered to enhance circulation, digestion and metabolism and help counter stomach disorders such as gas, bloating and nausea. They should be avoided in conditions of pitta or vata excess, but are fine for kapha conditions.   Fry two teaspoonfuls of cloves, and cover with boiling water for an indigestion tea, steeping for 20 minutes.  Apples baked with cloves are recommended for phlegm in the chest (although pears would be preferred in Chinese medicine).  Clove oil and crushed garlic in honey are used for asthma.

According to Wikipedia:

Eugenol comprises 72-90% of the essential oil extracted from cloves, and is the compound most responsible for the cloves’ aroma. Other important essential oil constituents of clove oil include acetyl eugenol, beta-caryophyllene and vanillin; crategolic acid; tannins, gallotannic acid, methyl salicylate (painkiller); the flavonoids eugenin, kaempferol, rhamnetin, and eugenitin; triterpenoids like oleanolic acid, stigmasterol and campesterol; and several sesquiterpenes.

Image by amandabhslater via Flickr

Eugenol, comprises 70-90% of the essential oil of clove ( 15 – 20 % of the dried buds are essential oils.) Eugenol is antiseptic and an anodyne which kills pain.  Excessive eugenol can be toxic however, so cloves need to be used in small quantities.  Cloves contain tellimagrandin II, an ellagitannin  with anti-herpes virus properties.

One of my favorite uses for cloves is topical as an oil for hypotonic muscles such as you find in multiple sclerosis.  You can make this in one of two ways.  I like to put a half cup of dried cloves in the darkest green olive oil I can find and keep it warm for two weeks over a warming plate.   I usually don’t strain it right away- taking oil off the top until it gets too low in the bottle. You can also add essential oil of cloves into a carrier oil like olive oil, almoond oil or jojoba.

A strong clove tea can be used topically, to relieve muscle soreness, as an antiseptic over rashes and abrasions, to cool the inflammation of poison ivy,  and to cool facial redness.  It can also be used as a natural dandruff remedy on hair.

The essential oil can be put on a ball of cotton  or hot moist washcloth and held against a sore or abscessed tooth to kill the pain.  ( Although antiseptic and antimicrobial, circulation in the teeth is low so it doesn’t mean you can avoid dental work.)  A drop or two of clove oil diluted in olive oil can be swabbed on a baby’s gum for teething pain, although I prefer a compress made with tea of cloves.

Clove oil is used in various skin disorders like acne, pimples etc. It is also used in severe burns, skin irritations and to reduce the sensitivity of skin together with lavender oil.

I recently posted a recipe for Thieves’ Vinegar, using cloves along herbs such as lavender, sage, peppermint, melissa and wormwood as a disinfecting and dealing with infectious disease.  You can also make a version of Thieves’ Essential Oil using equal quantities of lavender, rosemary, sage,  lemon eucalyptus essential oils with half as much clove and oregano essential oils. You can even make vinegar with a few drops of the essential oil, although I prefer to use essential oils externally to reduce stress on the liver.  I often dot on my Thieves’ oil over glands if I feel like I’m coming down with something, or use it in vinegar as a spray cleaner to disinfect surfaces.  Clove vinegar alone can disinfect as well- just steep a quarter cup of freshly ground cloves in a gallon of white or apple cider vinegar and strain after a  month.

Pomander balls are made by sticking oranges with cloves until the entire surface is covered.  Although widely considered decorative, they serve a function of keeping down moths in clothing (eugenol can be toxic in relatively small quantities—as low as 5 ml)  and providing aromatherapeutic effects.

Cloves are also considered an aphrodisiac because of their stimulating and circulating effects.  They are used in aromatic soaps and stimulating lubricants (use a very light hand if you try it.)

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