Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of an evergreen tree that is harvested during the rainy season when the bark is most flexible and easiest to work with. There are various evergreens belonging to the cinnamomum family that produce cinnamon, but the highest grade is from the cinnamomum zeylanicum tree indigenous to Sri Lanka. In fact the name cinnamomum zeylanicum is derived from the former name of the island, Ceylon.
A wild cinnamon tree can grow to 65 feet (20 meters) high, but trees used for harvesting are pruned down at about 2 years of age to produce an abundance of finer bark-yielding growth called, tillering. Once the tree reaches 3 years of age it's harvested twice yearly following each rainy season.
At harvest time the shoots are cut and the leaves and twigs are removed with the rough outer bark. The shoots are then beaten to soften the tissues of the inner bark and make it easier to peel away in a complete strip. Once peeled, the bark is placed in overlapping, extended layers then rolled to form long canes or quills that are sun-dried. As the quills dry, the bark curls and becomes paper-like. These long canes are later cut into sticks. Flakes left over from this process, called featherings are sold to make into ground cinnamon powder or to be distilled into oil. Cinnamon trees can yield productive bark for about 45 years, after which they are replaced with a new seedling.
Today much of North America's cinnamon comes from Southeast Asia and the closely related cassia tree. Cassia is considered slightly inferior in taste to zeylanicum or true cinnamon that is a softer color with a milder, sweeter flavor. It is normally a darker reddish brown color and has a stronger, somewhat bittersweet flavor. This type is also less expensive than zeylanicum cinnamon. Most spice available in the United States does not state its origin.
Cinnamon has a rich history dating back 5,000 years when Arabs controlled the spice trade, bringing cinnamon from what was known then as the Spice Islands to sell in Nineveh, Babylon, Egypt and Rome. Egyptians used it in their embalming rituals, the Romans used it as a love potion and valued spices as highly as gold, and Nero burned a year's worth in tribute to his dead wife. Even Noah used cinnamon in a holy oil to anoint the ark. By the 11th century, spices were used in place of currency in many instances and during the spice wars that followed, control of cinnamon played a vital role.
With its woody, mild yet exotic flavor, cinnamon is arguably the most popular spice in the world. Aside from its many uses in baking and cooking, it also provides a wonderful aroma to freshen the house. Just boil 5 cups (1.2 liters) of water with a teaspoon (2.6 grams) of added spice, then let it simmer on the stove to enjoy the smell of a spice that has intoxicated people for over five millennia!