She came up to me one evening, when I was very low, to ask (she being then afflicted with the disorder I have mentioned) if I could oblige her with a little tincture of cardamums mixed with rhubarb, and flavoured with seven drops of the essence of cloves, which was the best remedy for her complaint; – or, if I had not such a thing by me, with a little brandy, which was the next best. It was not, she remarked, so palatable to her, but it was the next best. 

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

History of Cloves

Originating in the Moluccas, or the “Spice Islands” of Indonesia, cloves have been used for centuries. Just like cinnamon, cloves were a major part of the Spice Trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, and were a coveted and expensive spice during this time. Used to flavor foods, as a scent in incense, and as a natural dental painkiller, cloves have a varied history with many associations. Drawing energies of protection, mental clarity, prosperity, and love, cloves are used in an array of magickal spells and charms. Let’s dive into the pungent, sweet, and hot history of cloves.

What are Cloves?

As with cinnamon, I think it’s beneficial to first establish what cloves are. In the picture to the right, you can see the Syzgium aromaticum, an evergreen tree that grows in tropical regions of the world. Cloves are actually the flower buds of this tree, picked at just the right time and left out to dry. Once dried, they become a hard, dark brown spice that can be used whole or ground into a powder.

Cloves get their name from the French word clou, which means “nail” (from Latin clavus), which is very fitting as cloves absolutely look like little nails when dried.

Cloves in History

The first written records we have of cloves are in Chinese writings from the 3rd century BCE. These records describe cloves being chewed or put in the mouth to freshen breath before meeting with the emperor.

Cloves are thought to originate in the Moluccas, a set of Indonesian islands and historically referred to as the Spice Islands. Clove trees were native to these islands, and for many years were traded all over Asia and the Middle East. As expected, Rome and Egypt got into the trade around the 1st century CE, where cloves became as highly traded a commodity as cinnamon. Some sources report that cloves were worth more than their weight in gold at the height of the Spice Trade. Europe was introduced to cloves around the 4th century CE, but due to cost and supply, the spice was only used by the very wealthy.

In the 15th century, Portuguese traders began to establish trading ports to assert dominance over the Spice Trade. This lead to more demand and availability of the spice throughout Europe, and although it was still expensive, a growing upper middle class could now afford it more readily. The Portuguese actually signed treaties with local rulers in order to build warehouses and engage in this type of commerce.

In the 1600s however, the Dutch took over the monopoly of the Spice Trade. They were brutal in their tactics (as we saw with cinnamon), going so far as to destroy clove trees that grew beyond their territory. This was an atrocity because the local tribes on these islands had a tradition of planting a clove tree to honor the birth of their children. Each tree was tied to the life of that child, and when cut down, was thought to directly affect the child. The trees had also been tied to deities and sacred spaces, so destroying the trees was sacrilegious.

By the 19th century, the Spice Trade had collapsed as other competitors managed to grow cloves in other locations. It is from this history we can see that cloves were magickly associated with protection, love, and prosperity.

Uses for Cloves

Cloves (and mostly clove oil) have long been used for the following medicinal (and miscellaneous) purposes:

  • As an antiseptic and analgesic (contains eugenol)
  • As a natural herbicide
  • To anesthetize or euthanize fish
  • As a mosquito repellent
  • In oil painting, to coat the canvas and prevent paint from reacting with oxygen
  • Flavoring medicine
  • Remedies for colds, bronchitis, fever, or sore throat
  • As a dental analgesic, especially prior to modern medicines
  • For digestive issues
  • To treat parasitic infections
  • To warm the skin and improve circulation (never put essential oil directly on the skin!)
  • As an expectorant
  • To curb the desire for alcohol suck on two cloves (thus we see what the David Copperfield quote refers to)
  • In mouthwashes and gums to freshen breath
  • To create a pomander, an orange studded with cloves to ward off moths. These were also given as gifts in Victorian England to show warmth and affection.
  • In cigarettes and cigars. A kretek in Indonesia uses whole cloves.
A pomander, made from cloves and an orange

Clove oil can actually be toxic. Of course this means you’d have to ingest a large amount of the dried spice, but as a concentrated oil, yes, it is toxic. In fact, if used clove oil internally, it is recommended not to use more than 3 drops per day for adults. This just shows that cloves are extremely potent and do actually work for many of these medicinal purposes.

In Foods

Cloves are used in many culinary applications. They are considered a mulling spice, often used in wines and ciders to warm the drinker during cold winter months. This also has the association of being an aphrodisiac, warming and getting the blood flowing which makes people…feel good, shall we say. They are often to garnish baked hams because of the unique flavors that mix from the meat and cloves. Cloves are used in several classic spice profiles, such as Chinese Five Spice, Worcestershire sauce, curries, Garam Masala, Pumpkin Pie Spice, and pickling mixes. Clove are also used in ketchup flavorings. In Mexican cuisine, cloves are used with cumin and cinnamon.

In Magickal Workings

The magickal properties of cloves come from the history, both the more recent European history, as well as the native Indonesian associations. Below are some type of magick that cloves can be used in.

  • Luck
  • Prosperity
  • Protection (from slander and spiritual forces)
  • Friendship
  • Love or lust
  • For clarity or heightened awareness
  • Intensity, strength, or courage
  • Purification, raising the vibration of a space
  • Manifestation

To use cloves in your magickal practices you can burn cloves as part of an incense to purify any space or increase your mental clarity. Create sachets or charms for any of the magickal purposes above. Use clove oil to anoint candles or other magickal tools. Create your own magickal pomander to hang above doors, in your car, or in another space – just place your intention into the pomander as you work. (You can also place the cloves in a pattern or sigil). Make a mulled cider or wine and share with others to strengthen friendship bonds. Use a bowl or handful of cloves to purify magickal tools. Do a ritual to attach a certain ‘to-do’ task to one clove. Put them all together in a bowl near your bed. When you wake up, smell them to remember your to-do list. Decorate Mabon, Samhain, or especially Yule altars with cloves.

Back to Herbal Encyclopedia

Clove Recipe

For this week’s recipe, I’ve chosen a cute little cookie called a Clove Snap. This should be an easy, simple way to experience the flavors of clove and orange together in a small cookie that you can eat with some clove tea (or my Mabon Tea!).

Clove Snaps

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