The Clove is a native of most of the Molucca islands, where it has been produced, from the earliest records, so abundantly, that in exchange for their spicy produce, the inhabitants were enabled, before the intrusion of the Europeans into their country, to procure for themselves the productions which they required of almost every other region. Although Europeans have for more than two thousand years known the use of this spice. yet little more than three hundred years back they were ignorant whence it was obtained. The Persians, Arabians, and Egyptians formerly brought cloves and nutmegs to the ports in the Mediterranean, and hither the -Venetians and Genoese re-sorted to buy the spices of India, until the Portuguese, in 1511, discovered the country of their production. This nation did not, however, long enjoy the fruits of its discovery; the Dutch soon drove them from the Moluccas, and for a long time retained a very strict monopoly over the productions of these islands. It is said that they destroyed the clove trees growing on the other islands, and confined their culture wholly to Amboyna. They allotted to the inhabitants four thousand parcels of land, on each of which it was expected that one hundred and twenty-five trees should be cultivated; and in 1720 a law was passed compelling the natives to make up this number; there were in consequence five hundred thousand clove-trees planted in this small island; each of these on an average produced annually more than two pounds of cloves, so that the aggregate produce weighed more than a million of pounds.
Subsequently to this period, the policy of the Dutch somewhat relaxed, and the tree has been suffered to grow on other islands, and even to be carried to the West Indies; where, however, it does not appear until very lately to have succeeded. Sir Joseph Banks introduced it into England about 1797, but of course it is raised there only as a mere ornament or curiosity of the hot-house.
The clove is a handsome tree, somewhat like the bay tree in some of its characters, though the leaves more nearly resemble those of the laurel. The flowers of the clove grow in bunches at the very extremity of the branches; when they first appear, which is at the beginning of the rainy season, they arc in the form of elongated greenish buds, from the extremity of which the corolla is expanded, which is of a delicate peach-blossom color. When the corolla begins to fade, the calyx turns yellow, and then red: the calyces, with the embryo seed, are in this stage of their growth beaten from the tree, and after being dried in the sun, are what are known as the cloves of commerce. If the fruit be allowed to remain on the tree after arriving at this period, the calyx gradually swells, the seed enlarges, and the pungent properties of the clove are in great part dissipated. Each berry contains only one seed, which is oval, dark colored, and of a considerable size. It is a long time before a clove-tree yields any profit to the cultivator; it rarely producing fruit till eight or nine years after being first planted.
The whole tree is highly aromatic, and the foot-stalks of the leaves have nearly the same pungency as the calyx of the flowers. ” Clove-trees,” says Sir T. Raffles, ” as an avenue to a residence are perhaps unrivalled their noble height, the beauty of their form, the luxuriance of their foliage, and above all, the spicy fragrance with which they perfume the air, produce, on driving through a long line of them, a degree of exquisite pleasure only to be enjoyed in the clear light atmosphere of these latitudes.”
Cloves contain a very large proportion of essential oil, larger perhaps than any other plant or parts of a plant. This oil is extremely pungent, and is one of the few essential oils which is specifically heavier than water. It is usually procured by distillation, but when the cloves are newly gathered it may be obtained by pressure. A part is often so taken, and the cloves, which are thereby rendered of little value, are fraudulently mixed with sound ones; but the robbed cloves are easily detected by their pale color, shrivelled appearance, and want of flavor.
The pungent and aromatic virtues of the clove reside in this essential oil, combined with the resinous matter of the spice; but it does not appear that these qualities are absolutely necessary to the growth or fructification of the tree. To give to this its greatest value, it must, however, be cultivated in a situation where they can be elaborated in the greatest quantity. Its profitable growth is therefore limited to a very narrow range of temperature and climate; as the clove loses its flavor if the situation be too moist or too dry, too near the sea, or too much elevated above its level. Though the tree be found in the larger islands of Eastern Asia and in Cochin China, it has there little or no flavor. The Moluccas seem to be the only places where the clove comes to perfection without cultivation.
This tree is so great an absorbent of moisture that no herbage will grow under its branches; while the cloves, when gathered, if placed in a heap near a vessel of water, are found very much to have increased their weight at the end of only a few hours, in consequence of the large portion of water which they have attracted and imbibed. It is said that both the grower and trader in cloves avail themselves of the knowledge of this fact and since this spice is always sold by weight, thus give a factitious value to their goods.