Notes from the Apothecary

December, 2015

Notes from the Apothecary: Cloves

As we move into the darkest part of the year I want to focus on a spice that brings joy and warmth into the home. Though they are just little brown spikes, the heady scent and flavour of cloves instantly conjures up images of winter festivity. Combine this with citrusy flavours like lemon and orange and you have a veritable indoor winter wonderland.

Cloves are actually flower buds, and it seems fitting that they are often used in winter as the tree they spring from is evergreen.

The Kitchen Garden

Cloves are a vital component in many different cuisines. In the west, we tend to consign it to the bakery; cakes, breads and buns of all kinds use ‘mixed spice’ which normally contains a small amount of clove, along with nutmeg, cinnamon and coriander. Cloves are considered an additive to ‘sweet’ foods, and at this time of year that repertoire is extended to include orange pomanders, mulled wine and other treats.

However, in eastern and African cookery, cloves aren’t just on the dessert menu. Cloves, along with cinnamon and other spices we may consider ‘sweet’, are used to flavour curries, tagines, savoury breads, stir fries and many other hearty and wholesome meals.

Cloves are strong, containing large amounts of eugenol; the oil that makes them smell so amazing. Use sparingly in your cooking. Remember, you can always add more, but you can’t take it away once it’s in there!

The Apothecary

One of the most common uses for clove oil to this day is for toothache. Most chemists still sell clove oil, and the idea is to rub some on your gum to help ease the pain. This is a recognised remedy, as the active chemical, eugenol, is anti-inflammatory and antiseptic, making it ideal for use in the mouth. This use in the mouth apparently dates back to at least 226BC, when Chinese officials would chew cloves before appearing before the emperor, to mask their bad breath and avoid offending royalty.

The Lab

Science has taken the traditional use of clove oil for toothache, and enhanced it for even further applications in the field of dentistry. When eugenol is combined with zinc oxide, it becomes a material that is now used for root canal sealing.

Eugenol has also been used to reduce harmful bacteria in food, and can even kill cancer cells in the colon.

The same chemical, believe it or not, is also used to attract bees and beetles for study, particularly orchid bees, and is also used in some types of mouse trap. It can even be used as an anaesthetic for aquarium fish.

Eugenol can be damaging to the liver in larger quantities. Allergic reactions are rare but you should always approach the use of any chemical with caution. Just because something is natural doesn’t always mean it is good! If you are going to use clove oil on yourself please test a tiny amount on a non-sensitive bit of skin, or simply consult a doctor first.

The Witch’s Kitchen

The aforementioned pomander was given in Victorian times as a gift that indicated affection, so it’s no surprise that cloves are actually considered an aphrodisiac. When tested on male rats, it was discovered that cloves could potentially reduce the ‘recovery time’ after intercourse. This doesn’t necessarily translate into human biology, but I’m sure there are those willing to experiment!

Cloves are generally considered masculine, and do actually increase testosterone levels when eaten regularly. Cloves are one of thoseĀ treatment options which are considered to be 100% natural. They are associated with fire, and the planet Jupiter, so you can work this into your spells and offerings as you see fit.

Cloves are seen as protective. They have the double whammy of keeping you and what you love safe whilst keeping nasties away, and the crafty moment in the next section utilises those properties well.

Home and Hearth

I mentioned the orange pomander earlier. It really is a lovely thing to make; both practical and beautiful. You can keep it to scent your own house, or give it as a gift. If your winter tree is robust enough, it even makes a great decoration.

Simply take a large orange, and push cloves into it in an appealing (no pun intended) pattern. You can then simply place the orange somewhere attractive, or use a ribbon to decorate it further and to allow it to be hung somewhere.

Add a little magic to your pomander by imbuing each clove press with a good intention. Think of a goal you want to fulfil as the nights grow shorter, after the solstice. Focus on it as you feel the clove piercing the flesh of the juicy orange. Feel your desire flowing into the universe, just like the aromatic clove oil seeping into the fruity flesh.

Or you could chant as you place the cloves:

Tropical flower, hard as nails

Come by air and come by sails

Fill my house with joy and love

As below, also above.

This reinforces the protective and positive power of the cloves, while cementing your own intent and will.

Image source:

I Never Knew…

In Indonesia, cloves are smoked in cigarettes called kretek. These have been smoked all across the globe but are now banned in the US. Although today kretek look just like any other cigarette, just a hundred years ago they were made of wrapped banana leaves and included nutmeg and cumin, as well as the ever present clove.