As I was making the Apple-Pumpkin Sugar Scrubs, I purchased a little bottle of pumpkin pie spices in the spice counter of the local grocery store. I was very surprised to discover that the bottle was not required to list the actual spices that were in the bottle. It was only identified as “pumpkin pie spices.” Most sources I googled listed Allspice, Cloves, Nutmeg and Cinnamon as the spices I would probably find in that little bottle. But it may also have Mace.
I like to get all the details, so I was dismayed that the spices were not listed in their entirety. On the other hand, this seemed like an opportunity to research these spices that Columbus sailed to find (he didn’t find them, of course, but that is another story).
Most of these spices are found in Indonesia, though many are now grown in other areas of the southeastern Pacific. That was, of course, where Columbus was intending to go. So what is the nature of these spices that were valuable and worth this risk?
Clove are crimson aromatic flowers of the evergreen tree Syzygium aromaticum. They are dried and used in chewing gum and cigarettes and were once used for toothaches, because of the eugenol content of the flower. It leaves breath smelling fresh, so is often used in dental applications. Essential oil of clove is antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal. It is safe to use on the skin when 3 drops of clove essential oil are diluted in 15 ml of oil (such as almond oil or coconut oil). It is also helpful diffused into the air in treating stress and depression. High doses of the chemical eugenol may cause liver damage, so large amounts of clove are not a good idea.
Cinnamon is found in Sri Lanka and both the bark and the leaves are used. The cinnamon on the spice rack seems to be made from grinding the dried bark of Verum cassia, but the essential oils I use are processed from the leaves. Cinnamon is probably the most familiar of these spices for most of us. We use cinnamon spice on sweet rolls, oatmeal, cereals and snacks of many kinds. Cinnamon also produces eugenol as one of the major chemical constituents. Essential oils made from the leaves of the plant are antibacterial and antiviral. As with clove oil, this essential oil should always be diluted before use on the skin or diffusers.
Mace and Nutmeg are derived from the same fruit, the evergreen nutmeg tree. Nutmeg comes from the seed part of the fruit and mace comes from the reddish seed covering of the Myristica fragrans plant. Mace has a slightly milder flavor than nutmeg, but has a similar taste and fragrance. Originally Nutmeg was grown in Indonesia, but recently a new cultivar called Torreya Californica is cultivated in California. These spices, like clove, are often used in toothpaste and cough syrup, but should be avoided during pregnancy. Nutmeg is used to alleviate constipation and flatulence. The essential oil is antiseptic, but is not a strong antiviral.
Allspice berries are picked before they are ripe and then are dried. The berries of Pimenta dioica grow on an evergreen shrub in South America. Allspice was actually found by Columbus in Jamaica, where it is still grown and is sometimes called “pimento” a name derived from its Latin name. It is used there as jerk seasoning and has a main chemical ingredient of eugenol. In that way it is similar to clove and cinnamon.
Essential oils should always be diluted before being put on the skin. Do not eat essential oils, they are for external use only. Spices are milder and can be used on food for flavoring and digestive health.
Eugenol seems to be a chemical important in all these spices. In 1492 eugenol would have provided important medicinal properties as well as the taste advantages that we enjoy today. This would certainly have been motivation for an explorer to risk his life to sail beyond the borders of continental Europe to search for a source of spices. Unfortunately, only allspice was available at that time Columbus arrived in the Americas.
Today cinnamon is the most commonly used of these spices. Cinnamon and nutmeg are both considered to benefit digestion. These spices add interest and depth to recipes that we use with apples, pumpkins and other autumn produce.