December 28th 2011 - The aroma of winter is wood smoke and evergreen. But winter holidays smell spicy. Herbs that grow only in the tropics - such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, allspice, and vanilla - are called spices. Their aromatic oils and volatile esters entice us with delicious smells and mouth-watering tastes. And spices warm us from the inside, as if we had ingested the tropical sun on a cold day. Spices help preserve food and counter a variety of illnesses, too. Come, sit and warm your feet by the fire. Close your eyes and imagine the dense green forests where aromatic spices grow.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) made me an outlaw. A toothpick soaked in cinnamon oil was the "drug" of choice in my grade school. No matter how much the adults attempted to dissuade us, no matter how they threatened, we found a way to get our cinnamon "fix". As an adult, I prefer my cinnamon in sticks or finely ground, though I can still vividly recall the hot rush of a fresh cinnamon oil toothpick. Any food can be enhanced with cinnamon, from apple pie to baked beans, from meat marinades to salad dressings. The scent of cinnamon heralds holiday cheer.
Medicinally, cinnamon is a warming tonic. It chases chills, prevents colds, and warms the hands and feet of those who feel cold all the time. Cinnamon has been used for over 2500 years as an appetite enhancer, a stomachic, a carminative, an antimicrobial, an antispasmodic, an anti-rheumatic, and an anti-fungal. A cup of cinnamon tea - made by steeping a cinnamon stick or a scant teaspoonful of powdered cinnamon in a cup of boiling water for no more than ten minutes - is a good way to cheer up and prevent the flu on frosty winter nights.
A cup of cinnamon tea also eases menstrual cramps, soothes sore joints, relieves gas pain, and allays that feeling of fullness after a big meal. A sip or two of cinnamon tea before meals improves digestion and prevents acid reflux. Those who drink cinnamon tea regularly will have less cavities, stronger gums, and fewer insect bites.
Cinnamon made the news recently for its ability to counter diabetes. Modern herbalists are intrigued by its mildly estrogenic and strongly antioxidant effects.
Folk medicine reminds us that cinnamon tea is a gentle but effective remedy for both childhood diarrhea and infestations of worms. In India, cinnamon tea is regarded as a remedy against halitosis, nausea, and vomiting. Cinnamon is frequently used by herbalists everywhere to improve the taste of strong, rooty brews.
The essential oil of cinnamon is a good substitute for clove oil in treating toothache. It is particularly effective in killing the organisms that cause periodontal disease.
Those who are pregnant and those with stomach or intestinal ulcers are advised to avoid cinnamon. It can poison. A little of the essential oil of cinnamon (of course the parents were right!) and very large amounts of powdered cinnamon can cause symptoms. Poisoning begins with central nervous system sedation - characterized by sleepiness and depression. This is followed by tachycardia (rapid heartbeat) and stimulation of the vasomotor center, which causes increases in intestinal peristalsis (diarrhea), respiration (panting), and diuresis (perspiration).
Cinnamon has been used for centuries as a perfume and a preservative. It was considered more precious than gold in ancient Egypt where it was valued as essential in embalming. Both Christians and witches are said to have known of the spiritual energy of cinnamon and so included it in their rituals. Why not make cinnamon part of your holiday rituals?
Cardamom (Eelettaria cardamomum) is an exotic spice that is not used much in American cuisine. Perhaps because the powder loses its taste almost immediately. Buy cardamom seeds still sealed in their pods for best flavor and effect.
Chewing cardamom seeds freshens the breath and improves digestion. Herbalists consider cardamom effective for helping the liver, the appetite, the stomach, and the intestines.
In Germany, cardamom is approved for use against the common cold, to relieve coughs, to counter bronchitis, to lower fevers, to ease inflammation of the mouth and pharynx, to resolve liver and gallbladder complaints, to counter loss of appetite, and to improve the ability of the immune system to counter infection.
In folk medicine, cardamom is used, like cinnamon, as a general remedy for all digestive complaints, especially gas. Unlike cinnamon, it is safe for use during pregnancy and a nice way to calm morning sickness. In India, cardamom is considered a remedy against urinary tract problems. Modern medicine is investigating the antiviral properties of cardamom.
For a special winter treat, try freshly-ground cardamom sugar instead of cinnamon sugar on your holiday toast.
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) is another seed valued for its aroma and healing powers. Everyone who's had eggnog has tasted nutmeg. The tight outer covering of nutmeg is the spice called mace.
Modern medicine validates nutmeg’s ability to inhibit diarrhea and slow down the action of the gastrointestinal tract. Folk medicine agrees, using nutmeg against diarrhea, dysentery, inflammation of the mucus membranes, flatulence, and vomiting. Nutmeg has also been shown to affect prostaglandin synthesis and to be a particularly potent antimicrobial. It may also be anti-rheumatic.
Chinese herbalists use nutmeg against diarrhea, worms, and all digestive upsets. In India, herbalists choose nutmeg to relieve headaches, to improve poor vision, to bring sleep to those with insomnia, to lower fever, to ease malaria, to counter impotence, and as an aid when there is general debility. American herbalists view nutmeg as an aromatic, carminative, digestive stimulant, and a hallucinogenic poison.
The oil of nutmeg, applied cautiously and externally, can relieve the pain of rheumatism, sciatica, and neuralgia. When inhaled, it counters respiratory tract infections.
As few as two nutmegs can poison. Overdose symptoms - which can last for up to three days - include stomach pain, nausea, intense thirst, double vision, reddening and swelling of the face, anxiety, lethargy, delirium, and hallucinations. Death from kidney failure may occur.
For best effect, and safety too, heat one whole nutmeg in a cup of full-fat milk for 5-10 minutes, add honey and enjoy. The nutmeg can be rinsed and reused many times.
Like cinnamon, nutmeg carries a powerful spiritual/magical energy. Carrying one in your pocket or suitcase is said to insure safe travels.
Green blessing are everywhere, especially in your spice chest.
Wise Woman Herbal Studies -
PO Box 64
Woodstock, NY 12498