There are two types of cinnamon grown and harvested today: Ceylon cinnamon, which is also known as "true cinnamon," and cassia, which is usually sold and marketed as cinnamon in the United States. The two spices taste and smell very similar to one another, but they are grown and harvested in two very different places.
Ceylon or true cinnamon usually grows in Sri Lanka and South India. The cinnamon tree is a type of evergreen with a soft bark. It is known by the names Cinnamomum zeylanicum and Cinnamomum verum.
When growing these trees for cinnamon production, farmers allow the cinnamon tree to grow unchecked for two years after planting. After this time, they prune the tree very harshly, which causes it to split off in multiple directions, more similar to a shrub than a taller tree.
Farmers harvest the cinnamon twice a year, immediately following rainy seasons. Smaller shoots are cut first. They are covered and left to ferment for a short time, then the outer bark is stripped off.
The softer, inner bark is rubbed down, then peeled away from the twig. During processing, workers stack several layers of bark and allow them to curl into one another to form "quills" or cinnamon sticks. Ceylon cinnamon quills will resemble a tightly rolled cigar once dried.
The lower portion of the cinnamon tree, where the bark is older and more flavorful is scrapped down to become ground cinnamon.
Cassia cinnamon comes from a different plant and belongs to one of three varieties: Cinnamomum cassia, Cinnamomum aromaticaum, Cinnamomum burmannii. Cassia is native to Southeast Asia and can be found most often in Indonesia, Vietnam, and China.
Farmers usually allow cassia cinnamon trees to reach the height of 10 to 15 meters tall before harvesting begins. This tree produces large, thick leaves, as well as buds, which are harvested, dried, and sold as a spice along with the bark.
Unlike Ceylon cinnamon, harvesters use whole branches and entire trees of cassia cinnamon, rather than smaller shoots. The branches are cut, and the bark is peeled away.
Farmers then sell the bark in large, unprocessed pieces or work with a processor to remove the thicker, outer bark. When the outer bark is removed, the inner bark curls in on itself to form a quill similar to those made from Ceylon cinnamon. The difference lies in its appearance: cassia cinnamon bark is thicker and coarser than Ceylon. When viewed from the side, it appears as one piece of bark, curling into itself. Typically, it looks like a hollow tube, while Ceylon is a filled tube.
Like Ceylon cinnamon, the lower bark is used to produce ground cinnamon. Processors peel away the outer bark layer, then finely grind it in factories.
Identifying Your Cinnamon
If the region your cinnamon grows in is important to you, make sure you purchase cinnamon from distributors that label the type of cinnamon being sold. Not all cinnamons are labeled either Ceylon or Cassia, particularly as the two are not only sold interchangeably, they are sometimes also mixed. Those companies that do label their cinnamon typically also give the origin of the spice.