Sunday, April 14, 2013


Cloves, by David Monniaux
 One of those words that came up in two different contexts recently, making me wonder. Cloves-- what are they exactly? In a novel I'm currently reading, The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng,  which is set in Penang in the days before and during WWII, the narrator mentions the cloves being brought into port in boats, reminding  me of the value of spices as a commodity that we largely take for granted now. They must come from some place in India  or Southeast Asia, but what about their funny little thorn shapes? What's the larger plant look like? Is the word related to cloven, or for that matter, clover, or is it some Indian word transmuted to become pronouncable by the English speaking tongue? Are all cloves the same, or are there different varieties?

We shall see.


They aren't thorns, but buds. Dried flower buds. The tree they grow on is called Syzygium aromaticum. I was curious what that 'syzygium' came from, thinking it might be named after some famous Hungarian botanist, but no, it's just Greek--syn as in "with" and zygot meaning "yoke", as in yoked or joined, because the petals merge to form a kind of cap. Cloves come originally from the legendary Spice Islands, also known as the Maluku Islands, perhaps more familiar to us as the Moluccas. Anyway, a subgroup of the many islands that make up Indonesia.

The Dutch, as you doubtless already know, played a big roll in Indonesia, and in the case of spices, it wasn't one that casts them in their best light. They attempted a monopoly on cloves, much like their very successful ones around nutmeg and mace. Apparently, though, nutmeg only grew on one island, while cloves grew on many, so their export was a bit harder to control. Nevertheless, in Britain in  the 17th and 18th century, they were worth their weight in gold, or so says Wikipedia.
Map by Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571-1638)
There is an intriguing story about one Monsieur Poivre smuggling some seedlings off the island, which ended up in France, the Seychelles, and ultimately in Pemba and Zanzibar, with Pemba being the current top producer. Zanzibar? Now why does that name sound familiar?
But that's not all there is to the story. Poivre is said to have gotten the seedlings from a tree named Afo, believed to be the oldest clove tree in the world, and now between  350 and 400 years old. Check out Simon Worrell's BBC story on his own quest to find Afo, the 'rogue clove'. Afo's survival is something of a mystery, as the Dutch moved to eradicate all clove trees not in their own possession. And that's not all--anyone found growing, possessing or stealing clove plants without authorization could be put to death.
And we thought marijuana laws were tough.
"Clove" is not Indonesian. It derives from the Latin clavus, or nail.  Because apparently where I see thorns, more people see nails. In fact, the  nail imagery is prevalent in many languages when it comes to cloves, as you can see here, on this really thorough article on cloves by Gernot Katzer. Worth checking out the rest of his spice library, too. Or at least check out his personal home page...



  1. OK, I just spent a half hour on Gernot Katzer's homepage. Quite fascinating and addicting. Like spices themselves!

    (The picture of the clove plant is kind of freaky in a Star Trekian kind of way...)

  2. Clove cigs were all the rage in the 90s when I lived in Boulder. I kind of didn't mind the smell and my allergies weren't set off by them. Ani deFranco reigned as queen of all the clove smokers on campus. Since I was not a fan of her jittery voice (smokin' too many cloves?) I associated one with the other and when I moved out of Colorado, so too did any thought of cloves until Montreal. My mother-in-law could not speak English. My french was confined to talking about food. So I cooked with her. I used a killer mushroom soup recipe on her that included clou de girofle and wow now hold cloves in high esteem.

    Thanks for that, Seana.

  3. Yes, the projects people get up to, just because they have the internet...

  4. Sheiler, clove cigarettes were all the rage around me for some ill defined period of my life as well. You give me the chance to add one interesting fact, which is that though many parts of the world have added cloves to their cuisine, Indonesian used them primarily for smoking.

    I also might have gotten into that whole clou de girofle thing, as apparently in English, girofle eventually became "gillyflower". But it all got pretty confusing, so I reined it in a bit on the etymology this time. Especially since Gernot Katzer has already done an admirable job on it.

  5. Monsieur Poivre is quite the name for a pisce smuggler.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

    1. It is, enough so that I thought it might be an alias. But no, Pierre Poivre is real enough. He might even be worth doing a blog post about.

    2. What the hell is pisce, you might well ask.

    3. Well, I did think at first that it had something to do with fish...

    4. That's right. I was born under the sign of Spices, the dyslexic fish.

    5. this adds nothing to the conversation but I just had to say to Peter, hahahahaha

    6. Oh, but that always adds something to the conversation.

  6. To me, cloves look like golf balls on clawed tees.

  7. Poivre's name is up there with that of Thomas Crapper, who popularized the flush toilet even though, Wikipedia says, he did not invent it.

    Cloves also look like an orb resting on a sceptre.