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The clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum) is a member of the Myrtaceae native of the Moluccas (Indonesia) that can reach fifteen metres.
It has opposite, persistent and leathery leaves. The flowers have a calyx that turns bright red on maturity and a pinkish white corolla, forming branched compact cymes. The fruits only contain one seed. The flower buttons before opening are called "cloves".
Cloves were used by the Chinese well before our times for culinary and medicinal purposes. The "spice route" leading to the "Land of Serica" (China) introduced it to the Romans who used to make edible meat that was often gamy. Plinys criticised cloves and peppers "that they only appealed via their bitterness". The Greek doctor Askesios did not agree: "Clove oil has a nice smell that helps digestion considerably." The clove tree was introduced in Europe by the Arabs, however it was the Portuguese who discovered the Moluccas in 1424 who had the monopoly. The administrator of the Ile de France, now Mauritius, acquired some plants and the acclimatised them first on his island and then in the Antilles. The use of clove was often considered a manifestation of insolent luxury: Dante criticised the Sienese in his Inferno "the expensive habit of seasoning with cloves". All throughout the world cloves are chewed to improve the breath and prevent dental infections.
Cultivation and production
Cloves are harvested before opening and allowed to sun dry until they become dark brown. Indonesia is currently the main clove producer, of which Zanzibar was the world capital, but it dedicates 95% of its production to the manufacture of local cigarettes, kreteks. Madagascar, Tanzania, Sri Lanka and the Comoros export the essential oil, and Mayotte, French "the fragrant island", is a small producer.
The clear, powerful and spicy odour is familiar to anyone who has visited a dental practice.
Extraction and yield
The essential oil is obtained by distillation. The content of clove essence is very high (150 millilitres per kilogram and more in the dried plant) gives an exceptionally high yield of 13%, i.e. thirteen kilograms of essential oil per hundred kilograms of flower buds.
The main active components of essential oil of Syzygium aromaticum are first eugenol and then caryophyllene.
Essential oil of clove is antiviral, antibacterial, anti-parasite, analgesic and anti-inflammatory. It is also a powerful anaesthetic, brilliant against toothaches. The eugenol contained in cloves is used in dental anaesthesia which is why its odour immediately makes us think of the dentist's chair! It facilitates digestion, fights bacterial diarrhoea as well as constipation, and eliminates physical and intellectual fatigue. Its fragrance has the property of staving hunger and was often used to endure the long hours of religious fasting.
Excerpts from the book « Aromatherapia – Tout sur les huiles essentielles », by Isabelle Pacchioni. Aroma Thera Editions.