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Sage Garden Blog

Growing cinnamon in pots

Funny how obsessions go. When I was about fourteen I spent a summer at the most amazing farm in Maitland, Nova Scotia. This was a herb farm set on a quaint property over looking the Bay of Fundy, where the World’s highest tides rush in and out for what seems like miles... amazing. The farm produced greenhouse bedding plants and herbs, as well as oodles of fresh cut basil and ornamental kale for restaurants. The soil was red clay and these growers made deep use of the fertile dirt in all of their pots, and part of my job was to dig, and dig and dig.

The farm owners were a practicing Buddhist couple originally from California, who had followed their spiritual leader Chogyam Trungpa to Nova Scotia, two of over 800 American Buddhists who established a presence in Nova Scotia during the 1980’s. They were kind and hardworking, with a background in landscape design. I stayed in their home, a small rustic yellow house not far from the greenhouses and farm gardens. On the second floor was a bright room that always smelled of incense and had a small smiling Buddha that radiated uplifting energy to my young teenage mind every time I poked in (this was also the summer I discovered David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, which had its own kind of potency).

I came to work on this farm because of my love of herb plants. For several years already I had been collecting, sprouting, dividing and generally being amazed by plants that were aromatic, culinary, useful or magical. Many of these plants were picked up at the Brewery Farmer’s Market in downtown Halifax, where the folks from Maitland set up each Saturday through summer and where my devotion to growing herb gardens was noticed by the Buddhist farmers. And so it was I spent a remarkable summer brushing up against greenhouse benches loaded with aromatic master pieces: lemon verbena, scented geraniums, a dozen or more basil varieties, thymes to end all time, sages of infinite wisdom and delight and much more. But no cinnamon. For all the other remarkable plants available to me, I really wanted to see what fresh cinnamon was like! (not very Zen of me, I know. Let me just sit with that thought...).

Sometimes people ask how I got into the greenhouse business, and I can easily say the magic of that summer in Maitland never wore off. But for years there was one bit of unresolved business: how could I grow a potted cinnamon tree?

There were some clues. Several herb Mecca's existed in the United States, a farm called Well-Sweep Herb Farm in New Jersey and one of the oldest nursery businesses in the North America, called Logee’s Greenhouse. Both offered thousands of rare and unusual plants, including true cinnamon - so clearly it was possible to grow cinnamon in pots in northern gardens. Alas, being north of the border there was no easy way to get a hold of a plant. I did once manage to find a nursery in the US that would ship unrooted cinnamon cuttings to Canada... but that shipment was held up for almost two weeks at the border (it did have all the required paperwork, but that’s the border for you) and the cuttings arrived looking very unwell. Not long after all leaves fell off and that was that.

I found seeds at a number of specialty mail-order companies, sometimes even waiting years to get “fresh-harvested” crops (cinnamon seeds are very short lived) - but not one seed ever germinated. Over the years I came across cinnamon look-a-likes (once very popular at box stores and marketed with a very cinnamon-like name; these were in fact not the true culinary variety and thus pretty useless), and even eventually got a small true cinnamon plant up to Canada (its a long story - the picture above to the right is of this plant). It grew well but was very cold sensitive, of course, and lasted only until a wicked draft took it down in mid-winter.

Many moons and a whole lot of experience later, my wish for cinnamon bliss came true. I found a propagator who could supply rooted cuttings of young Cinnamomum zeylanicum, the true cinnamon from which the classic spice is harvested. Now these are a staple potted plant at Sage Garden, my nursery business.

Here is what I have since learned about growing cinnamon:
First off, cinnamon is beautiful. The leaves are glossy and oval, growing to about 4” in pots. The plants themselves can grow as tall as 7 or 8 feet indoors or on the patio, but of course can be smaller if pruned back or kept in smaller pots. The new growth is a gorgeous cinnamon-red, then mellows to vivid green. Young plants have all green trunks, but with in about one year they become barky and older twigs are dark brown.

Cinnamon is a sub-tropical to tropical plant, requiring temperatures of 15 degrees Celsius or warmer to survive and flourishes when temperatures are in the high 20’s and warmer. Plants will put on tons of fresh new growth each summer, especially when sojourned outdoors on the patio or balcony. During winter they slow down considerably.

In the tropics cinnamon grows into a proper tree, but is not necessarily very tall. In fact, it often grows among other taller species and prefers bright but filtered light. In pots, especially indoors, the brightest location is the best location. Growth will be significantly more dense where cinnamon plants get loads of sun. During the summer outdoors, it may, however, be necessary to keep potted cinnamon in a more sheltered location to avoid sun scorching the leaves. Be especially careful during the transition from indoors to out; the leaves will require a few days to adjust to the brighter conditions found outside.

The best soil for a potted cinnamon is a combination of quality compost, sand and either peat or coconut husk fibres. A mix that is about a third of each ingredient is perfect. If you use coconut husk fibres, pay close attention to avoid over soaking the soil; soggy soil is not at all good for the roots (for most potted plants this is true, but particularly so for cinnamon). Plan for a container that has excellent drainage and avoid self watering pots or glazed ceramic pots. Water plants deeply, then allow them to dry to the touch before watering again. Outdoors potted cinnamon will dry out more quickly, so using a watering globe is an easy way to dispense with the stress of daily watering (during hot weather), although some people love to check on their plants daily and get in, hands on, as often as possible. I love to repot my tropicals once a year, usually in fall; spring is just so busy.

Cinnamon plants are average feeders, preferring regular application of organic plant food on a year round basis. Potted plants rely on us to ensure they get the nutrition required for healthy growth, so starting with a compost-based soil and attending to fertilizing goes along way towards success (and associated feelings of satisfaction when plants thrive!). A fish-based or general purpose organic fertilizer is the best option for cinnamon, since they are primarily a foliage plant (no fruits). During the winter, an option is to reduce supplemental fertilizing by half, but top dress your container with quality compost twice throgh the fall and winter (first heading into September, then again in January).

The biggest challenge I have faced with growing cinnamon at home is the dry air from my forced air heat vents (equally offensive is the cool air from air conditioning). Cinnamon prefers a more humid environment. There are a couple of work-a-rounds. One is to find a location that does not have vents close to the windows; kitchens are often good for this as well as some sunrooms and occasionally patio doors. Another option is to place a dish of water near your plant and the heat vent, which creates a micro-climate of humidity very close to the plant. This is a nice method as you only have to remember to refill the water every 3 - 7 days. If the dish method proves ineffective, spritzing fresh water onto the leaves is wonderful and even better is the occasional shower. Indoor plant benefit tremendously from showering!

Cinnamon can get pests, including spider mites and scale. The best prevention for this is the previously gushed about winter showering, adequate light, and regular feeding with compost or compost based liquid fertilizer. However, if pests do occur the large leaves can be wiped with a soft cloth and a safe insecticide such as Safer’s End-All (good option because it takes care of egg, nymph and adult stages of soft bodied pests). 

Now, after all this talk of growing cinnamon, how about using it?
The first surprise is that fresh cinnamon is just mildly aromatic. During summer the leaves definitely have a cinnamon aroma when crushed, and these can be used fresh for teas and drinks.

But we have all smelled cinnamon sticks and that is what we are after! To get the incredible fragrance of cinnamon sticks, the plant has to be dried. The leaves are wonderful dried, but not nearly as aromatic as the stems. In the tropics cinnamon trees are cut down (they actually regrow, making them quite sustainable) and the bark is peeled off and cured to make the familiar quills. At home, nothing so fancy is required. Simply cut even young stems and let them dry on a cookie sheet, out of direct sunlight (harvest the top and outer stems often to encourage tons of bushiness on the plants). I call these “cinnamon twigs” and they are awesome! The twigs can be used just like quills in recipes, and also are tasty to chew on or use as seasonings in all kinds of drinks.  The outer bark has the most oils, so scratching the twigs gently releases an amazing aroma experience.

© 1996 - 2015 Dave Hanson, Sage Garden


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