The dry, unopened floral bud of Eugenia caryophyllus looks like a reddish brown wooden nail, and so, as early as the Roman Empire, it was given the Latin name clove, or “nail.” Its pungent but sweet flavor has been described as “intense enough to burn the palate,” though many also find it to be a good oral anesthetic and an aphrodisiac.

Along with pepper, nutmeg, and mace, the cloves of the Moluccas played an important role in the history of world trade. The earliest records of their use in China come from the Han dynasty early in the second century BCE. It appears that the Chinese first received cloves through several cultural intermediaries, including Nusantao seafarers, who are among the putative ancestors of today’s Filipinos. The spice reached India around the second century CE, where it was given the Sanskrit name kalika-phala, which diffused into Arabic-speaking lands as karanful.

Cloves had made it into both Greek and Egyptian markets by the first century, and over the next two centuries, Phoenician traders delivered cloves to all parts of the Mediterranean. Later, Radhanite Jewish traders assured their distribution through Europe.

It took until the publication of the journals of Marco Polo around 1300 for Europeans to become aware of the origin of cloves. The book describes how, on his way back to Europe, the Venetian learned about cloves in Hui Muslim and Han Chinese ports on the East China Sea. By 1421, the Hui Muslim naval commander Zheng He had cultivated the collaboration of Moluccan spice traders, who had already converted to Islam in order to renew links among Muslim traders who moved cloves along various trade routes. The Portuguese were latecomers to the spice trade, but by the early sixteenth century, they had developed a monopoly on the valuable spice, which lasted for about a century. Following the Portuguese, Dutch middlemen controlled clove commerce until 1662, when King Charles II forvid the purchase of cloves by Englishmen unless they came directly from the producers. 

Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirck Books, 2006.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” http://gernot-katzers-spice- Accessed May 4, 2013.
Turner, Jack. Spice: The History of a Temptation. New York: Vintage, 2005.
Weiss, E.A. Spice Crops. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing, 2002.
Image Credit:
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press