Cloves, Nails and Carnations


They used a lot of ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg in medieval Europe, but what cooks really wished they had more of was cloves. No spice is more pungent and fragrant, and none holds its aroma longer--an important consideration back when spices spent months or years reaching their destinations.

A clove is a dried flower bud, and it’s so woody that the Greek name for it, “caryophyllon,” means nut-leaf. The name got rather worn down over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, “caryophyllon” wound up as “girofle” in French and “gillyflower” in English.

“Clove” is actually short for “clove gillyflower,” from the French “clou de girofle,” which literally means clove nail. This doesn’t sound so odd when you remember that the medieval nail wasn’t like the neat modern nail, which is a length of wire with a broad, flat head. Before the 18th century, nails were hammered out by hand in a blacksmith’s shop.


You can see the kind of thick, lumpy-headed nails that gave cloves their name in antique furniture and the “nail head” decorations that appear on leather belts. The similarity of cloves to this sort of nail has been noticed in many languages, in the Middle East as well as in Europe, from Spain (clavo) to Russia (gvozdika).

Another thing that has often been noticed is how much cloves’ aggressively sweet aroma resembles carnations’ (or did, back before florists started stocking odorless carnations). Some languages, including German and the Kirgiz language of Central Asia, use the same word (Nelke and kalampir, respectively) for cloves and carnations.