Herbs in History: Cinnamon


Cinnamomum spp.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | January 2024

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Cinnamomum verum J.Presl

Illustration 1: Cinnamomum verum J.Presl

The Mystery of Exotism

Widely used today, cinnamon has a long history of discovery, trade, rivalry, and also adulterations that was sometimes shrouded in mystery. Reliable information is provided by Dioscorides in the 1st century CE, who is traditionally considered to have well described cinnamon in his compilation on the natural resources used at that time to prepare medicines, the vast treatise De materia medica.

Several Species?

According to modern scholarly literature, Dioscorides devoted, indeed, a full chapter to kinnamōmon (Book I, chapter 14). Already on the basis of a simple comparison of the names,  kinnamōmon apparently corresponds to our cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum J.Presl [= C. zeylanicum Blume]) (Illustration 1). In effect, the properties that Dioscorides attributes to the plant recall those cinnamon is credited with in contemporary phytotherapeutics. Here is Dioscorides’ text, translated in a way that aims to reflect the original expression, deprived of any rhetorical artifice:

All cinnamon has warming, diuretic, emollient, digestive properties. It provokes menstruation and eliminates embryos, drunk (= internal use) and applied (= external use) with myrrh. It is indicated against venomous animals and poisons, and it clears the dark spots over the pupil of the eyes, and smeared on with honey, it removes birthmarks and freckles. It also acts on coughs, head colds, oedemata, kidney infections, and difficult urinations.

To this, Dioscorides adds two short notes that suggest both an economic value and a good knowledge, the latter based on an intensive practice: 

It is mixed with the most expensive perfumes and, generally, has many uses.
It is stored for later use ground up and mixed with wine and dried in the shade.

However, correct it might be, this first perception is incomplete. In the chapter on cinnamon, Dioscorides describes, indeed, several species. And he even starts the chapter with this statement about a great variety, both botanical and lexical:

Cinnamon. There are many species, with local names.

The important point is not so much the description of these species, which are briefly described below, but the method to identify the best species for therapeutic use. The method, of which Dioscorides says it is easy, combines smell, taste, and touch:

In fact, determination of the best [species] relies on the peculiarities of the aroma. Besides the sweetness and its unicity, the scent can be defined like rue or garden cress; also, pungent and biting in taste, and salty with heat; when rubbed in the hands, it does not crumble quickly …

The most decisive test, however, is the smell:

… as you begin the test, the best species, releasing its scent and filling the nose, does not leave you select inferior species ...

Of the different species, the second in terms of quality is “thick and stunted, of a pronounced yellow color”; the third “dark and smooth, fibrous”; the fourth “white, spongy, round in appearance and slight, easily broken and having a thick root”; and the fifth “smelling like cassia, with a strong scent, yellowish, similar by its bark to the brownish cassia, rugose at the touch, not very fibrous, with a thick root”.
Considering current production, the differences recorded by Dioscorides as indicative of species seem to reflect characteristics of local productions or even varieties of the genus Cinnamomum as the following table indicates (adapted from Kawatra and Rajagopalan 2015):


C. zeylanicum

C. burmanni

C. loureiroi

C. aromaticum


Sri Lanka





slightly sweet





light/medium reddish brown

dark reddish brown

dark reddish brown

dark reddish brown


lowest coumarin

high coumarin
strong aroma

high coumarin
strong aroma

high coumarin
very strong aroma


Cinnamomum cassia (L.) J.Presl

Illustration 2: Cinnamomum cassia (L.) J.Presl

Pursuing the reading of Dioscorides’ treatise, we find a similar organoleptic lexicon (visual, tactile, and gustatory) about the quills of kassia (Cinnamomum cassia (L.) J.Presl) (Illustration 2) which Dioscorides studies in the chapter before that on kinnamōmon (Book I, chapter 13):

… light yellow, with a good colour, similar to coral, narrow, smooth, long and thick quills, pungent in its taste, astringent, with some burning feeling, aromatic, with a smell of wine…


Of interest also in De materia medica, the chapter before kassia, about malabathron (Book I, chapter 12), identified as Cinnamomum tamala (Buch.-Ham.) T.Nees & C.H.Eberm., (Illustration 3) which is found now in Assam, Bangladesh, South-Central China, East and West Himalaya, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam.

Cinnamomum tamala (Buch.-Ham.) T.Nees & C.H, Eberm.

Illustration 3: Cinnamomum tamala (Buch.-Ham.) T.Nees & C.H, Eberm.

For these plants—particularly kassia and kinnamōmon, but also malabathron though to a lesser extent—which are presented as genera in their own right and not species, the ancient text presents similar, if not identical properties and indications: warming, diuretic (including for malabathron), and digestive (kinnamōmon and malabathron), with applications in ophthalmology (all three plants), gynecology (emmenagogue for kassia and kinnamōmon, and abortifacient for kinnamōmon), dermatology (clearing skin spots, kassia and kinnamōmon), digestive system, kidneys, and toxicology (counterpoison; viper’s venom for kassia and venomous animals for kinnamōmon), in addition to desiccative and strongly astringent properties, and the treatment of uteri aneurysms for kassia, and indication against cough and colds for kinnamōmon.

There thus seems to have been availability of different species of our current Cinnamomum genus, with both identical or similar uses, and some different and specific indications. This is further confirmed by Dioscorides’ statement about the possibility to use kassia, shouldn’t kinnamōmon be available (IV.13).

All this suggests a good knowledge, probably resulting from repeated empirical uses, if not tradition from the regions where the plants grew as none of them is native to the Mediterranean. This might explain why no ancient Greek manuscript includes a representation of either the plants or the drug obtained from them.

Cassia abbreviata Oliv.

Illustration 4: Cassia abbreviata Oliv.

Dioscorides’ text includes some geographical notions hinting at awareness of this non-native origin: malabathron is said to grow in marshes in India (I.12) and kassia is identified as a plant from the part of Arabia that produces aromatic plants (I.13).  This geographical distribution goes together with a reference to trade about kassia, for which Dioscorides gives the name according to merchants in Alexandria (I.13). In fact, Dioscorides does not describe the plants themselves, but just the drugs obtained from them in the form of dry quills. It can be reasonably assumed that these drugs were traded and circulated through the Mediterranean World in inner-Mediterranean distribution networks by either sea or land.
The mention of the areas of origin above—India and Arabia—together with a reference to merchants (Alexandria) are precious as they suggest a trade from the East to the Mediterranean World through the entry port of Alexandria. In a 2017 article, however, Dutch scientist Stephen George Haw claimed that the products known in the Classical World as kassia and kinnamōmon were not of oriental, but of African origin, and that true cinnamon and Cassia were not known until more recent times. For him, Classical Antiquity knew and used the plant currently identified as Cassia abbreviata Oliv. (Illustration 4).


Kinnamōmon is attested in Classical Greece as early as the first treatises of the collection of works attributed to—but not by—Hippocrates (460-between 375 and 350 BCE) on gynecology dating to the late 5th century BCE, and also in theatre literature in the early 4th century.
Whatever their botanical identification according to current taxonomy, kinnamōmon and kassia were present in Greek culture as oriental—and not African—plants and drugs. The testimony of Herodotus (5th cent. BCE) credited with the flattering title of Father of History, is unambiguous, however strange the tale he reports might be when discussing the origin of both plants (Histories, Book III, chapters 110-111, 113):

110. The Arabians get their frankincense as I have shown; for the winning of Cassia, when they seek it, they bind oxhides and other skins over all their bodies and faces, leaving only the eyes. Cassia grows in a shallow lake; round this and in it are encamped certain winged creatures, very like bats, that squeak shrilly and make a stout resistance; these must be kept from the men's eyes if the cassia is to be plucked.
111. As for cinnamon, they gather it in a fashion even stranger. Where it grows and what kind of land nurtures it, they cannot say, save that it is reported, reasonably enough, to grow in the places where Dionysus was reared. There are great birds, it is said, that take these sticks which the Phoenicians have taught us to call cinnamon, and carry them off to nests built of mud on the mountain crags, where no man can approach. The Arabian device for defeating the birds is to cut into very large pieces dead oxen and asses and other beasts of burden, then to set these near the eyries, withdrawing themselves far off. The birds then fly down (it is said) and carry the morsels of the beasts up to their nests; which, not being able to bear the weight, break and fall down the mountain side; and then the Arabians come up and gather what they seek. This is how cinnamon is said to be gathered and to come from Arabia to other lands.
113. I have said enough of the spices of Arabia …

All elements in this tale, whatever its reality or not, explicitly point to Arabia and the East as the origin of cinnamon and Cassia, with an implicit allusion to trade. Arabia—regardless of how it was geographically defined—is repeatedly cited and rightly credited with growing aromatic plants that also include Myrrh and Frankincense. This origin is further confirmed by the Latin encyclopedist Pliny (23/4-79 CE) in his vast Naturalis Historia (Natural History) (Book XII, chapter 51):

Next in affinity to Cardamomum would have come Cinnamomum, weren’t it convenient first to catalogue the riches of Arabia and the reasons that have given it the names of Happy and Blessed …

An eastern origin is implicitly referred to in Herodotus’ text through the reference to Dionysus, believed to have reached the Greek World from the East. It is confirmed by Pliny about Malabathron, which is related to cinnamon and Cassia as we have noted (XII.129):

Syria also supplies the malobathrum, a tree with a folded leaf, the colour of a leaf that has dried up; oil is pressed from it, to use for unguents. Egypt also produces it in still greater quantity. But the kind that comes from India is valued more highly …

As for trade, it is alluded to through the Phoenicians in Herodotus’ account. Located on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean, they were known as traders sailing the Mediterranean and contributing to the circulation of products from the East.
Strangely, Herodotus’ account about the way of collecting cinnamon appears in Historia animalium (Research on animals), the founding treatise of ancient biology, by the Greek scientist and philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) (Book IX, chapter 13):

The cinnamon is also said to be a bird by the people from those regions; they say that what we call cinnamon is brought by this bird from somewhere and is made into its nest. It nests on high trees and on the new shoots of the trees; but they say the natives fix lead on their arrows and by shooting bring down the nests and so collect the cinnamon from the debris.

This curious story is further repeated by Pliny (23/4-79 CE) in his vast Naturalis Historia (Natural History) (Book X, chapter 97:

In Arabia a bird called cinnamologus makes a nest of cinnamon twigs; the natives bring these birds down with arrows weighted with lead, to use them for trade.

It also appears in the zoological treatise by the Greek Aelian (165-170-230/34 CE), who took it from Herodotus (De animalibus – On Animals) (Book XVII, chapter 21):

I have heard that the Cinnamomus is a bird. Also, that it fetches twigs of the tree that bears its name from the ends of the earth and builds nests in places which our historians, Herodotus and others, describe. And these birds seem to like constructing their couches and lodgings among sheer crags. Accordingly, those who are anxious to obtain these twigs shoot heavy arrows that go with a tremendous whizz from a bowstring strained to the utmost, at the nests. And the nests are shattered, and the twigs come tumbling down, and they are the celebrated cinnamon.

Earlier in the same work, Aelian already reported it from Aristotle, not without transforming it (Book II, chapter 34):

… I have learned from Aristotle that there is a bird named cinnamon like the plant, and that the bird brings this plant, which is named after it, to the Indians, but that these people have no knowledge where and how the plant grows …

Here, indeed, the plant is named after the bird—rather than the opposite—and it said to be brought back, in a certain sense, from Arabia to India, where people have no knowledge of its origin and cultivation.
Returning to Pliny, he reported again about cinnamon later in the same book of the Naturalis Historia (Natural History), expressing skepticism about the tales related to the way of harvesting it. By the same occasion, he also discussed Cassia (XII,85-86):

In regard to Cinnamomum and Cassia a fabulous story has been related by antiquity, and first of all by Herodotus, that they are obtained from birds' nests, and particularly from that of the phoenix, in the region where Father Liber was brought up, and that they are knocked down from inaccessible rocks and trees by the weight of the flesh brought there by the birds themselves, or by means of arrows loaded with lead; and similarly there is a tale of Cassia growing round marshes under the protection of a terrible kind of bats that guard it with their claws, and of winged serpents—these tales having been invented by the natives to raise the price of their commodities ....

Pliny’s encyclopedia of natural science was extremely influential in the Middle Ages, until it was dethroned by Greek science in the Renaissance. In spite of its author’s skepticism as above, this fantastic natural history about cinnamon was perpetuated. It even generated representations of the cinnamon bird that had a long iconic tradition in manuscripts produced in the Middle Ages. In the Bestiaries, miniatures represent the bird under such names as Cinnamologus, Cinomolgus, or Cynnamolgus (Illustration 5).

The fantastic Cinnamologus bird

Illustration 4: The fantastic Cinnamologus bird, Manuscript the Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek - Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts, Manuscript Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, folio 31v

Leaving the fantastic geography created by—and around—an unknown and mysterious plant and returning, instead, to the firm ground of ancient science, we have a precise description of Cinnamomum by Theophrastus (ca. 371-287 BCE), the successor of Aristotle and the Father of Botany, in his Historia Plantarum (Inquiries into Plants) (IX.5.1-3):

Of cinnamon and Cassia, the following account is given. Both are shrubs, it is said, and not of large size, but of the same size as bushes of Chaste tree, with many branches and woody. When they cut down the whole cinnamon-tree, they divide it into five parts ; of these the first is that which grows next to the branches; this is the best: it is cut in lengths a span long or a little longer. Next comes the second kind, which is cut in shorter lengths. Then come the third and the fourth, and last the least valuable wood, which grows next to the root; for this has least bark, and it is the bark and not the wood which is serviceable; wherefore the part which grows high up the tree is the best, since it has the most bark …
And there is also a tale about it; they say that it grows in deep glens, and that in these there are numerous snakes which have a deadly bite. Against these they protect their hands and feet before they go down into the glens, and then, when they have brought up the cinnamon, they divide it in three parts and draw lots for it with the sun; and whatever portion falls to the lot of the sun they leave behind; and they say that, as soon as they leave the spot, they see this take fire. Now this is sheer fable.
Cassia, they say, has stouter branches, which are very fibrous and difficult to strip of the bark; and it is the bark of this tree also which is serviceable …

Earlier in the work, Theophrastus discusses the geographical origin of cinnamon, which he locates in Arabia, Syria, India, and regions to the East and South of the world (IV.4.14):

Among the plants that grow in Arabia, Syria and India, the aromatic plants are somewhat exceptional and distinct from the plants of other lands; for instance, frankincense, myrrh, cassia, balsam of Mecca, cinnamon and all other such plants … So, in the parts towards the east and south, there are these special plants and many others besides.

Assuming that the drugs known in Antiquity were C. verum and C. cassia as stated above, Pliny provides a small, yet interesting information (Natural Historia - Natural History XII.86):

Cinnamomum, which is the same thing as cinnamon, grows in Ethiopia …

However brief it might be, this short phrase may give some credit to G. S. Haw’s thesis about the presence of C. abbreviata in the Ancient World. Things might have been slightly different from his thesis, however: C. abbreviata from East Africa might have either crossed the Red Sea or travelled north to reach Alexandria, and merged with eastern species of Cinnamomum either in Arabia or in Alexandria. In that case, this might have taken place later, in a time when Rome was the ruling power in the Mediterranean, fostering a global trade that also allowed for a diversification in the sources of supplying, sustainable management of resources, and supposed therapeutic equivalence of the several species.

History, myths, and trade
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Authentication and Adulteration
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Castro R.C. et al. 2023. Authentication/discrimination, identification and quantification of cinnamon adulterants using NIR spectroscopy and different chemometric tools: A tutorial to deal with counterfeit samples. Food Control 147 (2023), 109619. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodcont.2023.109619
Ghidotti M. et al. 2023. Use of elemental profiles determined by energy-dispersive X-ray fluorescence and multivariate analyses to detect adulteration in Ceylon cinnamon. Analytical and bioanalytical chemistry 415(22) (2023), pp. 5437–5449.
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Swetha V. P., V.A. Parvathy, T.E. Sheeja, B. Sasikumar (2014). DNA Barcoding for Discriminating the Economically Important Cinnamomum verum from Its Adulterants. Food biotechnology 28(3) (3 July 2014), pp. 183-194.
On its medicinal uses
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Frydman-Marom A. et al. 2011. Orally administrated cinnamon extract reduces β-amyloid oligomerization and corrects cognitive impairment in Alzheimer's disease animal models. PloS one 6(1) (2011), e16564.
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