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the kernel of a tropical fruit
The nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) is an evergreen that averages 40 feet in height but can reach a height of 70 feet. The dark gray-green bark produces a yellow juice which becomes red when exposed to the air. The tough, dark green, oval leaves are about four inches long. It takes about five years for a nutmeg tree to produce its first flowers (right), which are small, light yellow, and bell-shaped. With very few exceptions, each individual nutmeg tree has either all male or all female flowers. It is impossible to determine the sex of a nutmeg tree until after it has flowered, and it takes very close examination to distinguish between male and female flowers.
It takes seven to ten years for a nutmeg tree to begin producing fruit (below left), which is pale yellow in color and grooved lengthwise. As the fruit ripens, the fleshy part becomes rather hard. It finally splits open to expose a bright-scarlet membrane (aril) encasing a nut (below center). That membrane can be dried and ground to produce the spice mace. Under the aril is a dark shiny nut-like pit, and inside that is the oval-shaped, inch-long seed which is the nutmeg (below right).
Full bearing occurs after 15 years and the trees continue to bear fruit for about fifty years. A single mature tree produces up to 2,000 nutmegs per year. The fruit is often collected with a long pole with a basket attached (resembling a lacrosse stick), to pick the fruit from this trees. After the fruit is hatvested the seed is removed, then the mace from the seed. The mace is flattened between boards and the seeds dried until they rattle, when they are shelled. Whole nuts are preferable to ground nutmeg, as flavor deteriorates quickly. Whole nuts will keep indefinitely and can be grated as required with a nutmeg grater. In addition to the nutmeg and mace, the fleshy part of the nutmeg fruit can be preserved and eaten like candy.
The nutmeg tree is native to the Molucca (Spice) Islands, but has been successfully introduced into all of the East Indies, the West Indies (especially Grenada), Brazil, India, and Sri Lanka. Indonesia is the world's largest producer, followed by Grenada, which features a nutmeg seed on its flag.
The Arabs were the exclusive importers of the spice to Europe up until 1512, when Vasco de Gama reached the Moloccas and claimed the islands for Portugal. To preserve their new monopoly, the Portuguese (and from 1602, the Dutch) restricted the trees to the islands of Banda and Amboina. This plan was thwarted however, by fruit pigeons who carried the fruit to other islands, before it was harvested, scattering the seeds. In 1796 the British took over the Moloccas and spread the cultivation to other East Indian islands and then to the Caribbean.
Nutmeg has long been lauded as possessing or imparting magical powers. A sixteenth century monk is on record as advising young men to carry vials of nutmeg oil and at the appropriate time, to anoint their genitals for virility that would see them through several days. Tucking a nutmeg into the left armpit before attending a social event was believed to attract admirers. Nutmegs were often used as amulets to protect against a wide variety of dangers and evils, from boils to rheumatism to broken bones and other misfortunes, and in the Middle Ages carved wooden imitations were even sold in the streets. Today it is known that small dosages of nutmeg can reduce flatulence, aid digestion, improve the appetite, and treat diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. The spice's flavor and fragrance comes from oil of myristica, which contains myristicin, a poisonous narcotic that can, in large dosages, cause hallucinations, vomiting, epileptic symptoms, and even death. None of those effects are felt with even above average culinary usage, but it is possible to "overdose" on nutmeg so it should never be consumed in quantities greater than necessary to achieve a desired flavor.
This page was last updated on 01/09/2017.