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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Cinnamomum

Which plant is the source of the cinnamon that's usually sold in the grocery store as a spice?


There is a fair bit of confusion about culinary cinnamon. According to Edible: An Illustrated Guide to the World's Food Plants (National Geographic, 2008), the more common source of grocery store-bought cinnamon is Cinnamomum aromaticum, which is also known as cassia or Chinese cinnamon (and should not be further confused with plants in the genus Cassia!). You might also come across Indonesian cinnamon, which is Cinnamomum burmannii. 'True' cinnamon which you might find in a specialty store is Cinnamomum verum (formerly known as Cinnamomum zeylanicum), a species which is native to Sri Lanka and India. It is usually somewhat lighter in color, with a more subtle flavor. To compare and contrast these three different species, see the U.S. Department of Agriculture's taxonomy pages for Cinnamomum verum, Cinnamomum aromaticum, and Cinnamomum burmannii.

Medicinal use of cinnamon is currently being touted as beneficial for various ailments. It is important first and foremost to consult a medical professional before taking any supplement, but second to understand which species of cinnamon is being referred to, as they have different properties. The article "Little Bit of Spice for Health, but Which One?" by Laura Johannes in the Wall Street Journal discusses this. Here is an excerpt:
"A recent meta-analysis found cinnamon can lower blood sugar and cholesterol in humans, but so far evidence that it eases arthritis is limited to animal data. For health benefits, cassia cinnamon, which is typically sold in supermarkets, has been more widely studied than Ceylon cinnamon. But scientists say Ceylon cinnamon is likely safer in very high doses than supermarket cinnamon. (....)

"A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry tested cinnamon commercially available in the U.S. and found 'substantial amounts' of coumarin, a naturally occurring organic compound that can cause liver damage if consumed in excess. The study found only trace amounts of coumarin in Ceylon cinnamon.

"'From a safety point of view, Ceylon cinnamon is better,' says study author Ikhlas A. Khan, assistant director for the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi's School of Pharmacy in Oxford, Miss. Not everyone is biologically susceptible to the liver damage, he says, adding that cinnamon 'in moderation' is safe for everyone."

An excellent web resource for all things spice-related is Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages.

Date 2018-03-01
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Cinnamomum

A friend gave me a small bag of camphor wood chips. I have them in my car and like the smell. Someone told me that camphor can be toxic. Is is toxic to breathe, to burn, to human, to plants? Is it safe to just keep in my car and breathe?


Cinnamomum camphora (source of camphor wood) is in the Laurel family. According to Toxic Plants of North America (Burrows & Tyrl, 2013), "few toxicologic problems have been associated with the genus. However, when a camphor tree was planted in an aviary, 49 budgerigars died within 24 hours, apparently from its noxious fumes." As implied by its common name [camphor tree], all parts of the tree contain camphor. The intensity is greater in the leaves than in the wood. The tree's toxic properties have been known since the late 1800s, and most exposures are non-fatal and involve accidental ingestion of liniments that contain the oil from the plant. When inhaled, camphor is usually a mild irritant (perhaps not so mild at all if you are a bird!) and nervous system stimulant. It also contains low levels of toxic alkaloids.

If you wish to err on the side of caution, I would suggest not breathing the fumes, burning the wood, or using it in the garden (unless you are trying to suppress weeds, though the tree itself is considered a weedy species in some parts of the world, such as Australia). As you probably know, people have used camphor-based preparations in herbal and traditional medicine.

About medicinal uses and associated risks
About the tree
About the wood

The article "Camphor—A Fumigant during the Black Death and a Coveted Fragrant Wood in Ancient Egypt and Babylon—A Review," by Weiyang Chen, Ilze Vermaak and Alvaro Viljoen, offers a historical perspective, and does mention that the tree may have some phytotoxic/allelopathic properties as well (toxic to other plants).
"The fragrant camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) and its products, such as camphor oil, have been coveted since ancient times. Having a rich history of traditional use, it was particularly used as a fumigant during the era of the Black Death and considered as a valuable ingredient in both perfume and embalming fluid. Camphor has been widely used as a fragrance in cosmetics, as a food flavourant, as a common ingredient in household cleaners, as well as in topically applied analgesics and rubefacients for the treatment of minor muscle aches and pains. Camphor, traditionally obtained through the distillation of the wood of the camphor tree, is a major essential oil component of many aromatic plant species, as it is biosynthetically synthesised; it can also be chemically synthesised using mainly turpentine as a starting material. Camphor exhibits a number of biological properties such as insecticidal, antimicrobial, antiviral, anticoccidial, anti-nociceptive, anticancer and antitussive activities, in addition to its use as a skin penetration enhancer. However, camphor is a very toxic substance and numerous cases of camphor poisoning have been documented. This review briefly summarises the uses and synthesis of camphor and discusses the biological properties and toxicity of this valuable molecule."

Date 2018-05-23
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May 31 2018 13:14:08