What are Cloves?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

A spice is leaves, seeds, or other plant parts used for flavoring food or as a condiment. The name derives from the Late Latin word species, meaning “wares” or “spices.” Spices are sometimes categorized by their cultural connection, for example, Italian spices or Cajun spices. Some herbs are also considered to be spices, but not all spices are herbs. Native to the Spice Islands or Moluccas and the Philippines, and cultivated in Zanzibar, Sumatra, Jamaica, West Indies, Brazil and other tropical locales, cloves are the dried flower buds of either Szyygiaum aromaticum or Eugenia caryophyllata, both in the myrtle family.

Tobacco, which is used in conjunction with clove to make clove cigarettes.
Tobacco, which is used in conjunction with clove to make clove cigarettes.

History. The Chinese wrote about cloves in the third century BCE, and the Ancient Romans used it as well. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Spice Islands, and therefore, their crops of cloves and nutmeg, were controlled by the Dutch. A Frenchman, Pierre Poivre, found one of the islands where the Dutch were disliked and — aided by the people there – stole seedlings of the plants that produce both spices. Poivre took them first to a French colonial island, Mauritius, where not many flourished, but descendants of those trees were taken to Zanzibar, which became one of the leading producers of this spice in the world, along with Indonesia and Madagascar.

Chai tea, which is made with cloves.
Chai tea, which is made with cloves.

Description. Cloves are the dried flower buds of a 15 to 30 foot (4.6 to 9.1 meter) evergreen with red and white blossoms. The buds have to be harvested at just the right time, and it takes from 4,000 to 7,000 buds to make a pound of cloves.


Food and Other Uses. This spice is sweet and pungent, with a rating of five out of ten on the hotness scale. It widely used in baked goods, and especially noted in Christmas baking. Clove buds are also used in pickling and recipes such as spiced peaches. Czech, Sri Lankan, and French cuisines characteristically use them, and clove oil is one of the ingredients in synthetic vanilla and in perfumes.

Oil from cloves is a popular homeopathic remedy for a toothache.
Oil from cloves is a popular homeopathic remedy for a toothache.

Oil of clove is used as a natural remedy for toothache. It is also a recognized antiseptic. Clove cigarettes, also called kreteks, are made by mixing ground cloves and tobacco, and are not less deadly than tobacco in other forms, according to the World Health Organization. These cigarettes are characteristically 60% tobacco and 40% cloves.

Cloves are cultivated in Brazil and other tropical climates.
Cloves are cultivated in Brazil and other tropical climates.
A kretek is also known as a clove cigarette.
A kretek is also known as a clove cigarette.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@anamur-- Yea, but don't use clove oil undiluted. It will burn your mouth and can be dangerous if it's ingested. It also tastes really bad but it's worth it if that's all you have at home to treat a toothache.

A random alternative use of clove oil is that it prevents rusting. I like to rub some on my tools in the garage for this purpose.


How do I use clove oil for toothaches?

Do I just put it on a cotton ball and apply it on the tooth?


I've traveled in the Middle East and Southeast Asia where cloves are used often to help digest food and also as a remedy for bad breath.

I was given cloves after eating foods with garlic and onion in the Middle East to get rid of bad breath. In Southeast Asia, I was given a mix of cloves and aniseed for digestion and good breath.


I've noticed that my spicy chai tea contains cloves. It has a very intense flavor that almost numbs my tongue if I make it with water, so I add plenty of milk to tame that intensity and create a bit of a creamy texture.

I have read that because of their extreme aroma, they can be used to repel mice. Is this true? I'm thinking about putting some bags of cloves around my home to try it out.


@Perdido – Yes, cloves are in pumpkin pie spice. In fact, they are in so many recipes involving pumpkin!

I buy cloves online, because I can find better deals there than in my grocery store. I purchase cloves right before the month of October, because that is when I begin using them.

I make some wonderful chocolate chip pumpkin pie bars that include cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. They have the texture of pumpkin pie with a hint of chocolate and all the spiciness you would expect from something containing cloves.


I sometimes use cloves as a substitute for allspice. Both have a pungent aroma and a similar flavor, so I barely notice a difference.

Aren't cloves found in pumpkin pie spice? I know it includes cinnamon and nutmeg, but all of those types of flavors mix together so well that I have trouble distinguishing them.


I frequently use cloves in cooking, and I never would have guessed that they came from a tall tree! I always pictured them growing on a short shrub about the size of a chrysanthemum.

It sure does take a lot of blossoms to make one pound of cloves! Maybe this is why they are more expensive than many other spices.

However, it also doesn't take much to season a recipe. Cloves are very powerful, so even a small bottle of them can last years.


Clove oil is also cited by wiseGEEK elsewhere in "Humanly putting down a fish" which seems like hopefully, an effective use of this spice. It works apparently as a sleeping agent, and so after using it, without the killing effects of another agent cited, will allow the fish to wake up again. Just thought it should be known. Instead of freezing, flushing, etc. a living creature.


I find several uses for oil of cloves. It also has an anesthetic effect also.


In ancient times cloves were also used as a deodorant.

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