Fiann Ó Nualláin says the flavours of Christmas - cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove - can see you right through the year and they’re not just good for the gardener, but good for the garden too.
I come from a line of diabetics, my body’s insulin and I don’t really see eye to eye and I can sugar-rush on a slice of brown toast as much as on a slice of cáca milis. So, I often have a sprinkle of cinnamon on my morning toast to set me up right for the day.
Cinnamon has a long history in both Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine to treat blood pressure, circulation issues, heart disease, inflammation, cognitive function, and what we now call diabetes and metabolic syndrome X.
Modern science has revealed the mechanisms of how as little as a teaspoon of cinnamon a day radically improves the life expectancy of those with insulin resistance.
That sprinkle on my toast or on your porridge if you prefer, slows the rate at which glucose enters the bloodstream after a meal, by interacting with some key digestive enzymes and by mimicking insulin itself. This double benefit makes cinnamon a serious anti-diabetic spice.
There is also a boon for potential dementia treatments, as cinnamon also seems to inhibit the buildup in the brain of the protein known as tau, which hallmarks Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, it helps normalise neurotransmitter levels and slow neurone damage, making it beneficial to Parkinson’s disease.
In 2004, the American-based Association for Chemoreception Sciences, issued research findings that chewing cinnamon-flavoured gum or smelling cinnamon spice enhanced the cognitive processing, attentional processes, and recognition memory among study participants.
In terms of being good for gardens, it turns out that the aroma of cinnamon deters ants. The spice also makes an excellent dusting powder to treat powdery mildew and as a precautionary antifungal treatment to assuage dampening off, crown rot, and other common garden problems resulting from bacterial or fungal infection.
I use it when I divide rhubarb or strawberries. For fruit trees, one can make a fungicide paste by mixing cinnamon powder with cooking oil. So, if you bought the bumper pack for Christmas hot chocolates and barely dipped into it, it wasn’t a waste but an investment.
If you do the eggnog thing or enjoy a homemade mulled wine, then you will have nutmeg on the spice rack this week. In the canon of Middle Eastern traditional medicine and herbalism, nutmeg is considered aromatic, stimulant, sleep-inducing, carminative, digestive, intoxicating, and aphrodisiac.
It does have two compounds — myristicin and macelignan — proven to slow/reduce age-related degradation of neural pathways and improve general cognitive function. A possible support to dementia there.
Don’t start lashing it on everything, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and too much nutmeg is dangerous. I recommend you consult a professional herbalist, as it’s easy to overdose on nutmeg — and I mean OD — everything from hallucinations to coma. A pinch every so often won’t do you wrong.
In traditional Chinese medicines it is topically applied (in an oil-based paste) to treat arthritis, muscle pain, and abdominal pain. Those anti-inflammatory effects have been used in ancient cosmetics (and sneaking back into modern versions) to help reduce redness and puffiness and, being antimicrobial, to also treat breakouts.
For the garden, in particular for the greenhouse and shed, the myristicin that nutmeg contains is a potent insecticide and particularly an arachnidicide (kills spiders, including houseplant mites). It also contains isoeugenol (an active principle that it shares with cloves), a natural flea and insect repellant. Lightly dust affected areas, webs, plants or make a spray with tonic water.
If you ever get a chance to peruse a medieval cookbook you will notice cloves in almost every dish, breakfast to supper, savoury and sweet. This of course, was in the days before refrigeration, canned foods and HSSAP practices, so clove’s potent antimicrobial agents were used to kill any bacteria inherent in the ingredients of any meal.
Clove is not so popular today; I only ever see it in hard candy sweets. I always keep a supply – it is so handy to halt a toothache as the eugenol and beta-caryophyllene compounds in the spice are both mildly anaesthetic, as well as an anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial.
Clove in tea or food imparts immune system boosters and so helps ward off winter viruses and sniffles. In the garden, the oil of clove has a long history of use to combat infestations of cockroaches, ants, fleas, spiders and flies. The powder, as a dust or made up into a cooled tea as a spray, can also remedy aphids and mites. I use a mix of clove spice and essential oil of thyme to clean cutting tools and prevent any transfer of plant rusts, fungal spores, or blights.
So, Christmas spices are good to flavour the season, pick up your health and also are handy about the garden too. Whatever you do with that spice rack, have a great Christmas and join me in the New Year when, hopefully, I will have worked out an ingenious use for the barrow full of socks and scarfs and the gallon of old spice I get every year.
Top of head, I’m thinking a scented scarecrow... Dragon’s Den here I come.
Even the garden needs a holiday. Rest easy. I’m not joking — cold, damp and treading boots don’t do the garden any good. We don’t want to compact soil and cause it to water log, we want the microorganisms to be able to move about top layers over winter too. A week or more of hands off will do no harm.
Read a gardening book instead — apparently mine are fab. Now, I’m joking...
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