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by Cynthia Gladen

The Clove tree will not grow except within sight of the mountains and within smell of the sea.
      —Zanzibar saying


The clove is a dried flower bud taken from the highly aromatic tropical evergreen tree of the same name. This tree, which can grow to heights of up to 30 feet, flourishes in the warm, humid climates of places such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Tanzania. Today, in fact, Tanzania alone produces nearly 80% of the world’s cloves. The sweet-smelling clove bud comes either whole or ground and is used in a variety of ways. Whole cloves are popular in cooking meats, pickling fruit and making syrups, while ground clove is used for baking, in perfumes, and for medicinal purposes, particularly for the relief of toothaches.

Cloves on map of Petrus Plancius, Insulae Moluccae.… Amsterdam: Cornelis Claesz, 1592.Cloves on map of Petrus Plancius, Insulae Moluccae.… Amsterdam: Cornelis Claesz, 1592.

      The earliest written mention of cloves is in writings from the Han dynasty in China (207 BC to AD 220) which tell how officers of the court were made to hold cloves in their mouth when talking to the king, apparently to insure the sweetness and acceptability of their breath.1 In addition to China, cloves were also grown, or rather grew wild, on the famous Molucca Islands in Indonesia which became known as the “Spice Islands”. Vast forests of clove trees flourished on these islands and were encouraged in their abundance by a native custom of planting a clove tree whenever a child was born.2

      Europeans did not experience cloves until about the fourth century, when the spice arrived on the continent via Arab traders as a luxury item. Arab traders continued to control the clove trade, along with the rest of the spice trade, until the late fifteenth century when their monopoly was finally broken by the Portuguese. For most of the Middle Ages, though, Arab traders bought spices such as cloves, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg directly from the native source or from Chinese and Japanese merchants. From there, the Arabs transported the spices by land or sea to Alexandria, from which they were shipped to European countries. Spices could command a very high price in Europe due not only to the long and costly way they traveled to reach Europe, but also because of their culinary value in the preservation and flavoring of food.3 In fact, spices were so precious in Europe that they were often used as currency: a pound of cinnamon could be used to purchase three sheep, for example.4

Detail of Hulsius mapDetail of Hulsius map

      Following Vasco da Gama’s voyage around Africa to India in 1497, Portugal controlled most of the important sources of spices in India. The majority of the pepper, however, and all of the nutmeg, mace, and cloves came from the spice islands, which Portuguese began the process of conquering in about 1512. The Portuguese were quick to enter into treaties with the local sultans who controlled the spice trade. On the island of Ternate, the principal clove-growing island, the Portuguese signed a treaty with the Sultan of Ternate and began establishing warehouses for the collection and storage of cloves to be shipped back to Europe.5

Levinus Hulsius: Zehende schiffart oder Reyse der Holländer und Seeländer in Ost Indien, Frankfurt, 1613, following page 6.Levinus Hulsius: Zehende schiffart oder Reyse der Holländer und Seeländer in Ost Indien, Frankfurt, 1613, following page 6.

      For the next 100 years, the Portuguese had a complete monopoly of the clove trade. In the early seventeenth century, it was the Dutch who gained control of the trade. Under both Portuguese and Dutch regulation, spice shipping routes were more firmly established and a larger amount of spices were grown for trade. For these reasons, spice prices in Europe began to drop over time. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries spices became available to almost everyone for the first time. With easier availability and affordability, cloves were popularly prized as a treatment for indigestion and nausea. They were also used to treat cough and toothache, treatments still used today in herbal medicine. More commonly, though, as noted earlier, the aromatic cloves today are used in cooking and to scent perfumes and oils.



      1. Michael Castleman, The Healing Herbs: the Ultimate Guide to the Curative Power of Nature’s Medicines (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1991), 115.
      2. Selma Hudson, About Spices (Chicago: Melmont Publishers [1971]), 33.
      3. An interesting note about cinnamon is that before it was ever used as a flavoring, it was used to scent perfumes and ointments. Hudson, 26.
      4. Hudson, 15.
      5. J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson [1963]), 145.

Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at