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What are Cloves?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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.

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 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.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for DelightedCooking, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By stoneMason — On Dec 02, 2012

@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.

By serenesurface — On Dec 01, 2012

How do I use clove oil for toothaches?

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

By SteamLouis — On Nov 30, 2012

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.

By kylee07drg — On Nov 26, 2012

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.

By cloudel — On Nov 25, 2012

@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.

By Perdido — On Nov 25, 2012

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.

By StarJo — On Nov 24, 2012

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.

By anon115964 — On Oct 05, 2010

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.

By serious — On May 01, 2010

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

By sputnik — On Dec 09, 2008

In ancient times cloves were also used as a deodorant.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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