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Cinnamomum verum (formerly C. zeylanicum), “true cinnamon” or Sri Lanka or Ceylon cinnamon, is a small evergreen tropical tree in the Lauraceae (laurel family) that originated in Sri Lanka and is one of several Cinnamomum species that produce the commercially important spice known as cinnamon. Although cassia (C. aromaticum), which is less expensive and has a stronger flavor, is often marketed as “cinnamon,” C. verum is generally considered to have a more delicate flavor that is more suitable for desserts.

The names “cinnamon” and “cassia” cause considerable confusion, as they are often used interchangeably. In the U.S., the spice produced from the dried, ground bark of any of these species is referred to as “cinnamon,” without distinguishing among species. In addition, “cinnamon” may also refer to the spice obtained from the aromatic bark of an unrelated species, Canella winterana (in the Canellaceae). When the spice is sold in bark form, rather than ground, C. verum can be distinguished from C. aromaticum because it comes in tight rolls (quills) rather than in looser flakes with curled edges. It can be distinguished from the related Indonesian cinnamon (C. burmanii) by the quills having many soft layers, which can easily be ground in a coffee grinder, as opposed neat quills composed of a single extremely hard layer.

The C. verum tree grows to around 10 m (30 ft), and has leathery leaves, usually opposite, that are lanceolate to ovate, 11 to 16 cm (4.5 to 6.25 in) long, with pointed tips. The inconspicuous yellow flowers, which are tubular with 6 lobes, grow in panicles (clusters) that are as long as the leaves. The fruit is a small, fleshy berry, 1 to 1.5 cm (0.25 to 0.5 in) long, that ripens to black, partly surrounded by a cup-like perianth (developed from the outer parts of the flower).

The spice form of cinnamon is obtained by removing the outer bark of the tree, and scraping from it the inner bark, which is dried and ground into power. Cultivated trees may also be coppiced (cut back to encourage shoot development), so that the coppiced shoots can be harvested. Cinnamon oil is steam distilled from the leaves and twigs.

Cinnamon from various species has been used as a spice since ancient times (noted in Sanskrit texts and in the Bible, as well as in accounts by Herodotus and Pliny, although it can be difficult to ascertain which particular species is referred to). It is widely used to flavor baked goods, puddings and other desserts, and candies, as well as soups and stews, curries, meat and poultry dishes, and pickles. Cinnamon is also used to flavor beverages, including teas and mulled wine.

FAO estimates that total commercial production of all forms of cinnamon (derived from several species of Cinnamomum, including C. aromaticum, as well as canella (Canella winterana) was 155,000 metric tons, harvested from 186,000 hectares. China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam together produced around 98% of the world’s total.

(Bailey et al. 1976, FAO 2012, Flora of China 2012, Hedrick 1919, van Wyk 2005.)

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