Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Notorious Nutmeg - Myristica fragrans

Myristica fragrans - Nutmeg, also known as mace, magic, muscdier, muskatbaum, myristica, noz moscada, nuez moscada, and nux moschata, is an evergreen tree indigenous to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas (Spice Islands) of Indonesia. The nutmeg tree is important for two spices derived from the fruit: nutmeg and mace.  The name nutmeg comes from Latin, nux muscat, meaning musky nut. The genus na­me Myristica derives from the Greek 'myron' meaning balm or ointment. The species name fragrans refers to the good smell of the plant.  Nutmeg is the actual seed of the tree, and roughly egg-shaped and about 1 inch long by 0.7 inch wide, and weighing approximately 0.4 oz dried, while mace is the 'lacy' reddish covering of the seed. 

Myristica fragrans grows to about 35 feet high, has a smooth grayish-brown bark, with oblong, dark green, glossy leaves of 4 to 6 inches long.  The small, bell-shaped yellow flowers give off a pleasant aroma.  The fruit is light yellow with red and green markings, resembling an apricot or a large plum.  The outer fleshy covering (which is candied or pickled as snacks in Malaysia) bursts open to reveal the seed. The seed is covered with red membranes called an aril, which is the mace portion of the nutmeg. The nut is then dried for up to 2 months until it rattles inside the shell.  When the aril is fresh it is a brilliant scarlet, when dry it is brittle and yellowish-brown in color. The seed, or nutmeg is firm, fleshy, and white with reddish-brown veins. 

International trade in nutmeg originated with the Arabs, during the middle ages, they sold nutmeg in Venice for very high prices, but would never reveal the exact location of their source. The small Banda Islands in Indonesia were, until the mid-19th century, the world's only source of nutmeg and mace.

The early European spice trade was remarkable for its competitive ferocity. European nations struggled with each other, with deadly consequences, for control of the lucrative Spice Island market. The seemingly insignificant nutmeg was once fought over by Venice, Genoa, the Netherlands, Portugal and England, to the point where the inhabitants of the Banda Islands were wiped out.

European traders were unable to discover the location of nutmeg's source until Portugal sent ships to conquer Malacca in 1511, which at the time was the hub of Asian trade. In November of that year, after having secured Malacca and learning of the Bandas' location, Portugal then sent an expedition of three ships to find them. Malay pilots were either hired or forced to guide the Portuguese to Banda, arriving in early 1512, where they filled their ships with nutmeg, mace, and cloves. However, the Portuguese were not able to control the trade of nutmeg and they continued trading, but without a foothold in the islands themselves.

In 1621, the Dutch waged a bloody war in order to control nutmeg production in the East Indies, including the massacre and enslavement of the inhabitants of Banda.  The Banda Islands were then run as a series of plantation estates, with the Dutch sending out annual expeditions to destroy all Myristica fragrans planted elsewhere.  In 1760, the price of nutmeg in London was kept artificially high by the Dutch who voluntarily burned full warehouses of nutmegs in Amsterdam. 

As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the English took temporary control of the Banda Islands from the Dutch and transplanted Myristica fragrans to their own colonial holdings in Zanzibar and Grenada, where it became the national symbol and is proudly emblazoned on the country's flag. The Dutch continued to hold control of Banda until World War II. 

In eailier history, Roman author Pliny speaks of a tree bearing nuts with two flavors in the first century A.D. In the the sixth century, nutmegs were brought by Arab merchants to Constantinople. In the 12th century, Emperor Henry VI had the streets of Rome fumigated with nutmegs before his coronation. And nutmeg is one of the ingredients of a magical perfume described in 'The Key of Solomon the King.' The Arabs themselves used nutmeg as an aphrodisiac as well as to treat digestive problems. In India it was used to treat asthma and heart problems, and is still used as a sedative.

A legend states that the nutmeg's musky scent is so overpowering when ripe, that it causes birds of paradise to fall to the ground. Nutmeg was believed to possess magical properties and is still used throughout Great Britain as a lucky charm. The belief that carrying nutmeg in the pocket could cure various complaints has been recorded from various parts of that country. In Yorkshire it was thought to relieve rheumatism, in Lincolnshire it was used to cure backache and in Devon it was eaten to clear up boils. It was also believed to be a lucky charm for gamblers. In The Colbert Report's 2008 Christmas special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All," recording artist John Legend, sings about how much he loves nutmeg, in his eggnog.
Nutmeg was once used for disorders related to the nervous and digestive systems and in Elizabethan times, it was believed to ward off the plague. This caused it's popularity and price to increase to where just a few nutmegs could secure someone financial independence for life.

Used in small dosages nutmeg can reduce flatulence, aid digestion, improve the appetite and treat diarrhea, vomiting and nausea.   But in large doses, raw nutmeg has psychoactive effects.  It's intoxicating properties are very well known, but it has never been a significant psychoactive substance due to its very uncomfortable side effects. 

Common effects include an excited and confused state with headaches, nausea and dizziness, dry mouth, bloodshot eyes and memory disturbances. That's the good part, the other effects are visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations, sudden and uncontrollable convulsive attacks, delusions, paranoia, vomiting and seizures. These effects and after-effects will last for several days. Some people have also experienced abnormal personality changes, abdominal spasms, insomnia, gagging, sensations of hot and cold, and blurred visions after taking a high dosage of nutmeg.

Because nutmeg intoxication takes four to six hours before maximum effect is reached many people risk poisoning themselves by taking more, thinking they did not take enough initially.  Nutmeg poisoning is characterized by nausea, vomiting, collapse, tachycardia, dizziness, anxiety, headache, double vision, hallucinations and irrational behavior, all requiring medical treatment.  Abnormal heart rhythm, dehydration, skin irritations and fever could also appear as other side effects.

Despite this, it has been used on occasion, by prisoners and soldiers, when other substances were unavailable or unaffordable. In 1946, before his conversion to Islam, Malcolm X used nutmeg while in jail when his supplies of marijuana ran out. The high which this spice produces is not taken as a pleasant experience by everyone. Most dislike ingesting it mainly because of its horrid taste.

In cooking, nutmeg goes great with many foods including leafy green vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and cabbage. It is also great on custards, eggs, cheese, fruits, pasta, potatoes, rice, sausages, squashes, lamb, and veal.   Mace and nutmeg are very similar, though many people differ as to whether one is more potent in flavor than the other.  Both spices are strongly aromatic, resinous and warm in taste. Mace is a lighter color and can be used in light-colored dishes where the darker flecks of nutmeg would be undesirable. Some beverages improve with a little mace, especially chocolate drinks and tropical punches. 

Nutmeg quickly loses its fragrance when ground; so grating only what you need to use from a whole nut is recommended. It's freshness can be maintained longer if stored in an airtight container. Keep away from heat, moisture, and direct sunlight. These elements hasten the loss of flavor and aroma. Avoid storing over the stove, dishwasher, sink or near a window. Nutmeg should not be stored in the freezer. Freezing does not extend the shelf life of regularly used dried spices. If stored in the freezer, and repeatedly removed for use, condensation will form in the container and accelerate loss of flavor and aroma.

Second-rate nutmegs are used for the oil, which is used in the perfume, food, and pharmaceutical  industries. The oil can be colorless or light yellow, and is used as a natural food flavouring in baked goods, syrups, beverages, and sweets. It is also used in toothpaste, and as a major ingredient in some cough syrups. Broken nutmegs that have been infested by pests are referred to as BWP grade (broken, wormy and punky). BWP grade nutmegs must be used only for distillation of oil of nutmeg and extraction of nutmeg oleoresin. However, sometimes they are ground and sold illegally.  For the very real danger of molds on BWP nuts, consumers should buy their nutmegs whole and grind it themselves.

Myristica fragrans prefers the rich volcanic soils and hot, humid conditions of the tropics. Plenty of water in a well-drained soil, along with a constant temperature above 55F is needed along with protection from dry conditions, direct sun, strong winds and pollution.

Grafting is the preferred method of propagation since Myristica fragrans is dioecious, meaning there are female and male plants. Both are required for fertilization, the optimum situation for production being one male for every ten females.  There is no method of determining the plant's sex before it's eighth year, and propagation by seedlings will yield 50% males, which are unproductive.  Myristica fragrans does not bloom until it's ninth year, and reaches its full potential after 20 years. It continues to produce fruit for up to seventy-five years without attention.  And one hundred pounds of nutmeg will produce only one pound of mace.

Resources include: 

Wikipedia Home cooking
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances
Rajib Singha
Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages
The Epicentre
Trade Winds Fruit
Yamasaki Plant Photo Gallery

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Love your post on Nutmeg - Myristica fragrans. I have been wanting to add this plant to my garden for years, but unfortunately have never been able to find where I can purchase it from here in Australia.

Thanks again for your interesting post!