Updated  
August, 31 2014 18:09:38

‘Spice of kings' at risk of disappearing

Precious spice: A cinnamon hill in Thuong Xuan District, Thanh Hoa Province .

Cinnamon, which once enriched people in Thanh Hoa, is now difficult to find. Duc Loi and Trung Hieu meet the local "kings of cinnamon".

The youth in the central province of Thanh Hoa's Thuong Xuan District know about a precious variety of cinnamon only from stories told by elders known as "kings of cinnamon".

That's because this variety of cinnamon, called "pearl cinnamon", has almost disappeared from the province's jungles.

While visiting Thuong Xuan District, we were lucky to meet a "king of cinnamon", Cam Ba De who lives in Xuan Le Commune.

It took us half the day to find his house. The old man and his wife live with their nephew in a poor simple house.

De is nearly 90, but is still very alert. His hair has turned silver and his skin looks healthy.

In particular, he vividly remembers the years of fighting the enemy and working as a farmer. "I've endured two wars against the French and the Americans. I participated in many major battles where our army won glorious victories," he recalled.

After spending years in the battlefield, the war veteran returned to his hometown to contribute to the country's economic development.

When Thanh Hoa decided to promote the cultivation of cinnamon for essence distillation, De was one of the first people to go into the forest to find cinnamon, bring the tree saplings home and teach villagers how to grow it.

In Thuong Xuan, De was dubbed the "king of cinnamon". Thanks to the 2,700 cinnamon trees his family planted in 1976, they had the highest income in the area. They could buy a radio-cassette player and an imported bicycle.

"When the local cooperative received a contract to distill cinnamon essence for the state, they sent some engineers here to guide and assist the distillation," says De.

He was elected chairman of the cooperative, and was responsible for managing all activities for processing cinnamon essence. De understands the quality of each strain of cinnamon as well as how to do better distillation to get higher yield.

After each batch of oil was processed, the engineers appreciated De's ability in oil extraction.

Not only that, De also knew how much oil was available from different quantities of cinnamon leaves and bark.

He said the cooperative could process between 1.2 and 1.5 litres of cinnamon oil from one tonne of cinnamon leaves, while in the other regions people could produce only half.

With his valuable experience, De knew that if cinnamon was planted in sandy-clay soil, the bark of the tree would be thin and would contain more oil than trees planted in garden soil.

Talking about "pearl cinnamon", a variety of cinnamon that was more precious than gold but has now disappeared, he said, "That species of cinnamon was very rare. My dad could find a tree only during his lifetime around 70 years ago."

Since ancient times, the people in Thuong Xuan District considered "pearl cinnamon" to be more precious than gold because, according to legend, this variety not only had high economic value but also cured many diseases.

Bidding farewell to De, we left for Bong Nang Village, another cradleof cinnamon cultivation in the district, in the scorching sun. The village Party Secretary Cam Ba Phuc said the province earlier had a policy of planting cinnamon for distilling oil, so the local people set up many cinnamon gardens.

"Every family rushed to plant cinnamon trees. But in a short time, production became stagnant, the extract could not be sold, and consequently, many people stopped growing cinnamon. In the past, hundreds of households in my village used to grow cinnamon; now only a few do it," Phuc added.

Under his guidance, we met 80-year-old Cam Ba Long who still grows cinnamon. Long is still physically strong. He built a house on stilts on a hill many years ago to facilitate the planting and care of cinnamon trees. The younger members of his family tried to dissuade him, and asked him to leave the cinnamon hill and return to the village, but he remains determined.

"The younger generation only thinks about money. They don't know anything about the value of cinnamon. It is the plant that is attached to the flesh and blood of our people, so I have to keep the plantation. Not only my children but other people in the area, on seeing the fall in cinnamon prices, have replaced cinnamon with other crops of higher economic value. But I would rather die than quit growing cinnamon," he said.

According to Long, cinnamon's economic value is very low now, while the time needed to grow these trees is long.

Spiced up: A farmer in Thuong Xuan District tends his cinnamon trees. — VNS Photos Duc Loi

From 3ha of cinnamon trees that Long has been planting for 10 years, he harvests more than one tonne of cinnamon, earning only VND10 million. If people plant acacia trees, their harvest value would be twice that of cinnamon bark. That's why acacia is now the major crop in the hills here.

The local people also see Long as a genius who can find "pearl cinnamon" trees, as he has found that variety several times before.

"I used to spend many years in the woods looking for that kind of precious cinnamon. It is very difficult to find, so we believe this type of cinnamon tree has gods or spirits living on them. Once a friend told me that he had found a cinnamon tree, but when he led us to that area, we searched hard but could not find that tree. Everybody says ghosts live in this kind of cinnamon tree," Long said.

According to Long, that variety of cinnamon is hard to find because it is located deep inside the jungle, often obscured by other trees.

"Usually its leaves are smaller than the normal cinnamon tree, while its stems and leaves are greener," he added. Long once found a pearl cinnamon tree after several days of search. He got more than 100 kilograms of cinnamon bark from that tree. Hearing about it, many traders came to buy his stock. Long finally sold it to a trader for two gold taels.

Long said that when people spoke about the value of that cinnamon variety years ago, many flocked to the forests in Xuan Le Commune to find it.

"They hunted day and night, and had meals in the forest. They took away many cinnamon trees. Therefore, looking for that tree today is like looking for a needle in a haystack," he said.

"People here still have many stories about those cinnamon trees because it had great value and not just in terms of cash. It can also save lives. But not everyone can get it now because these trees grow deep in the jungle and are very hard to find," said Vi Mai Ke, former chief of Thuong Xuan District.

The commune's total area under cinnamon cultivation now is only 10ha, much less than in the past.

"That is because people see other crops get higher value. At present, the value of cinnamon is rising, so we will encourage residents to grow it," said Xuan Le Commune People's Committee Vice Chairman Hoang Trong Luu. — VNS

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