FAST BACKWARD: Davao’s ‘not so famous’ cinnamon

Fast Backward by Antonio V. Figueroa

Cinnamon, already a coveted spice before the Spanish arrival in the country, first appeared in European chronicles in 1521 after Antonio Pigafetta, Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan’s Venetian diarist, wrote about it. Even the expedition of Garcia Jofre de Loaisa also reported the presence of cinnamon in the Visayan islands and Mindanao.

Dubbed as the star in the list of local cinnamons, the Cinnamomum mindanaense Elmer, which is synonymous with C. burmanni Blume, is known to Manobos as the kaliñgag and to Bagobos as kami; it is considered as “the best cinnamon bark produced in the Philippines by a wild species.” It is one of the twenty-five cinnamon species in the country, eighteen of which are endemic.

American taxonomist Elmer Drew Merrill (1876-1956), an authority on the flora in the Asia-Pacific region, first collected samples of the tree’s bark in the hills behind Davao while serving as botanist of the Bureau of Agriculture in Manila in 1902. Three centuries earlier, however, according to Dutch records, the presence of cinnamon in Davao region was previously reported. Ruudje Laarhoven, in her book ‘Triumph of Moro Diplomacy’ (1989), wrote:

“[Dutch merchant Casparus] Brouwer left [Ternate, Indonesia] on October 2, 1663 with a sloop and instructions to gather information on the trade goods available in Mindanao, collect debts, and explore the possibility of permanent residence in Butuan Bay [gulf of Davao]. The best time to buy wax in Butuan was early October. Bouwer was there by the middle of October and could barter 17 piculs of uncleaned wax. He also gave the company (Dutch East India Company) some information on sulphur, cinnamon, and sandgold.”

Popularly known as Mindanao cinnamon, the C. mindanaense, most sought for its oil, is also found in abundance in two other Mindanao regions, namely, Surigao and Zamboanga. It is related to the Ceylon cinnamon, and its bark ‘in appearance, taste and odor is just like the cinnamon of commerce.’  As early as 1598, export of the native cinnamon was already recorded.

The Mindanao cinnamon grows to about ten meters tall, of medium size and found on medium elevations in many areas of southern Philippines. Known in Zamboanga as canela, the tree has ‘leaves [that] are opposite or sub-opposite, smooth, leathery, pointed at the both ends, and from 7-15cm in length. The flowers are greenish, about 5mm long, and borne on compound inflorescences. The fruit when mature are shining steel-blue, 1.25cm long, 7.5mm in width.’

The other cinnamon trees found in the archipelago include the C. camphoratum Blume, also known as alcanfor and found in Baguio, Mindanao and Palawan; C. iners Reinw., known locally as namog and found in the provinces of Lanao, Palawan, Tawi-tawi, and Laguna; and C. mercadoi Vidal, alternately known as kasiu, kuliuan, miling, marobo, samiling, or kanila, and found in in Babuyan Islands, Luzon and Mindanao.

Moreover, there is C. myrianthum Merr., called in Ilocano as peling and found in Ilocos Norte; C. sandkhulii Merr., endemic in Ifugao and Benguet provinces; C. zeylanicum Blume, found in Manila and adjacent towns and introduced from India or Ceylon; C. javanicum Blume; C. xanthoneurum Blume, locally known as magkono; C. loheri Merr.; C. perglabrum; C. culilawan Blume; and C. camhoratum (Linn.) T. Nees & Eberm.

Cinnamon, a spice and a medicinal herb, derived its name from Greek kinnamon, which was borrowed from the Phoenician and Hebrew qinamon. Among Visayans, as attested by Pigafetta, the tree was known as caui mana, a takeoff from Indonesian kayumanis, meaning ‘sweet wood.’

As a medicine, it brings down cholesterol, inhibits diabetes and heart diseases and has vitamins and micronutrients. As culinary and food commodity, it is used in beverages, pastries, confectionaries, and food supplements; as pharmaceutical, it has anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-microbial, hypoglycemic and hypolipidemic properties. And as for cosmetic and personal health care, it is used as scent for perfume, mouthwash, lip balm, and facials.

A recent addition to the Philippine cinnamon list is the Cebu cinnamon, scientifically known as C. cebuense and known locally as kaniñgag, was first described by A.J.G.H. Kostermans in 1986. Global Trees Campaign, in an online article, described its bark as having medicinal properties, and used “as remedy for stomach ache. The bark is either chewed directly or boiled with water before drinking… [and] the leaves


a potential source of spice for cooking.”

“Kaningag,” Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity says, “is a small to medium size tree of the genus Cinnamon, about four to eight meters tall with a diameter of twenty-five to thirty-five centimeters and a smooth outer bark. It is endemic to the forests of Cantipla and Tabunan of Barangay Tabunan of Cebu… and to a few nearby islands of Camotes and Siquijor.

“This species is highly prized for its aromatic bark and leaves, and medicinal and culinary purposes. According to locals, the bark is said to cure stomach aches by either chewing on or boiled in water before drinking.

“The leaves are leathery yet smooth, about sixteen centimeters long and eleven centimeters wide, tapering with a pointed tip. They are widely used as spice. The panicles are about seventeen centimeters long with densely hairy flowers.”

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