Spice of Life: Cloves

Cloves are a classic spice of the holidays, and one of the “Big 4” (along with cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper). Throughout this series, you’ll discover some basic history and tips, along with suggested tea-infused recipes that feature each spice.

Spice of Life - Cloves


Cloves originate from evergreen trees found on certain islands in the West Indies, once known as the Spice Islands.

Cloves drying in the sun – by Pemba.mpimaji at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5

The clove is actually a dried flower bud and timing is critical in harvesting. As the green bud turns color from green to yellow, to pink, and then just starts turning red … that is the time to pick. Traditionally, women and girls pick off the lower branches while the men and boys use ladders to pick the higher branches, which can be as high as 33 feet off the ground. The buds are laid out to dry until one-third their size. If they are not picked and allowed to bloom, a fruit grows so it’s no longer usable as a spice.

In third-century-BC Chinese literature, there are references to an odd use of cloves. If you were granted the privilege to see the emperor, you were to first chew a whole clove so you wouldn’t offend him.

Flowers of the clove tree – by Prof. Chen Hualin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

By the first century AD, the Romans listed cloves among the cargo on ships coming into port from India. They were manly used as fragrance then. By the eighth century, Europe was using cloves as a spice in their cooking and trading it as a commodity.

As with cinnamon, the Portuguese controlled the spice islands from the early 1500’s until 1605 when the Dutch took over. It is believed the natural habitat is from the island of Amboina (now Ambon). Even though the island is only 30 miles long and is smaller in square miles than the city of Nashville, it has had a rough history. But over time clove trees were transplanted to other regions and islands around the world. Today in the U.S., we get most of our cloves from Madagascar and Brazil.

Health Benefits

The main chemical in cloves is eugenol. It is a mild anesthetic, which also dilates blood vessels (making you feel warm), and aids in digestion. It has been used for several illnesses including fever, rheumatism, stomach and liver support. Dentists used to use it for a local anesthetic. (It also makes a good mouthwash.) Cloves have also been used in perfumes, lotions and cosmetics.

Cooking with Cloves

Cloves are found in recipes on every continent. They may be used whole to stud hams or roasts, or included in pickling fruits. The ground spice is used in applesauce, pies, puddings, cookies or other desserts. Use it sparingly though because a little goes a long way.

Whole cloves have more flavor and last much longer than ground cloves. If you choose to buy ground, buy it dark brown so you know it doesn’t have ground twigs added. As with other spices, buy in small amounts so the flavor doesn’t fade.

Here are a few pairings to inspire you:

  • Fruits: apples, oranges, kumquats, lemons
  • Veggies: beets, carrots, pumpkin, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, squash
  • Meats: beef, chicken, pork, duck, ham, lamb, stew
  • Types of cuisines: Indian (key ingredient in garam masala), Chinese, Mexican, German
  • Other: almonds, honey, walnuts, tea

Several of our tea flavors also include cloves:

  • Rooibos: Carrot Cake Fascination
  • Black tea: Chai at the Beach (seasonal flavor), Cinnamon Apple Chai (seasonal flavor), Vanilla Spice Chai
  • Tisane/Herbal: October Nights (seasonal flavor)

Check out other articles in this series!

(Note: These names will become links as each article is posted.)

  • Allspice
  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Cumin
  • Ginger
  • Nutmeg
  • Paprika
  • Saffron
  • Star Anise
  • Vanilla
Want more recipes? Request our eMagazine Index & Sampler –Yes, Please!
Appetizers Beverages Bread Breakfast/Brunch Cookies Desserts Main Dishes Salads Sauces & Condiments Side Dishes Soups Treats
Butternut Ravioli
Butternut Ravioli
Fiesta Gazpacho
Fiesta Gazpacho
Smoky Chili
Smoky Chili
31 Days of Tea Food & Culture Food History & Trivia Food Myths Gadget Reviews Gift Guides Health & Nutrition Ingredient Profiles News & Updates Tea History & Trivia
For All the Tea in China
Tea & Foodies Book Club: For All the Tea in China
New Flavor Debut
New Flavors Debut
The World on a Plate
Tea & Foodies Book Club: The World on a Plate