The clove is a staple of holiday cuisine in the United States. This ancient spice has long been used for a variety of purposes: culinary, recreational, and medical. Dentists most commonly see the essential oil of cloves used as a home remedy for temporary relief of toothache. The combination of mild analgesia and cooling sensation can often be effective in reducing pain.
But what is a clove, exactly? The hard, pointy little pieces of fragrant woody material aren't immediately identifiable to the casual cook. As it turns out, the spice we see in the store is actually the calyx, or fused stemlike structure of the flower Syzygium aromaticum. This plant originated in the so-called Spice Islands, a small archipelago buried in the heart of Indonesia. Archaeologists have uncovered the earliest known use of cloves through the discovery of a ceramic vessel in Syria. Dated to around 1721 BC, the vessel contained dried cloves similar to the same used today with one exception: to the ancients, this aromatic spice was more than just a flavor enhancer.
Cloves have been employed in a multitude of medicinal uses stretching from antiquity into the modern era. Ancient medical practitioners used cloves to increase acidity in the stomach and improve peristalsis in cases of indigestion. High concentrations of clove-infused substances were believed to act as a natural deworming agent, aiding the body in clearing the parasite population. In Eastern medicine, clove oil was applied externally to relieve disorders of the kidneys, invigorate hypotonic muscles, and clear the lungs.
This purported bronchodilatory property led to the creation of kretek, a kind of cigarette with cloves included with tobacco. They are the most popular smoking article in Indonesia, making up nearly 90 percent of the cigarette market. Their popularity may be explained by the widespread belief that they ease chest pain and treat asthma, though arguably the cooling properties of the oils contained within the clove provide only superficial relief compared to quitting smoking altogether.
These oils, however, do seem to exhibit some bioactive properties. The most abundant component of the essential oil extracted from cloves is eugenol, making up anywhere from 72 to 90 percent of the oil by volume. It is an antiseptic and has minor local anesthetic effects. In its pure form, it is often combined with zinc oxide to make zinc oxide eugenol, which is used for denture fitting and occasionally to lessen inflammation in a pulp chamber in preparation for endodontic treatment. However, caution must be used – pure eugenol can be toxic by ingestion at amounts beyond five milliliters.
But of course, cloves see the most prodigious demand during the holiday season. In fact, even with advanced wastewater treatment facilities, there are measureable levels of cloves along with cinnamon and nutmeg in major bodies of water during the holidays!
Kretek. (2016). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kretek
National Institutes of Health (2012). Clove (Eugenia aromatica) and Clove oil (Eugenol). Medicine Plus. nlm.nih.gov.
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