Nutmeg is the common name for a dark-leaved evergreen tree, Myristica fragrans, that is cultivated for two spices derived from its fruit, “nutmeg” and “mace.”
The nutmeg is the oval-shaped seed, and mace is the bright red webbing that surrounds the seed.
The tree is native to the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, of Indonesia.
Nutmeg is known to have been a prized and costly spice in European medieval cuisine as a flavoring, medicinal, and preservative agent.
Saint Theodore the Studite (ca. 758 C.E. – ca. 826), was famous for allowing his monks to sprinkle nutmeg on their pease pudding when required to eat it.
In Elizabethan times, it was believed that nutmeg could ward off the plague, so nutmeg was very popular.
Around 1600 it became important as an expensive commercial spice in the Western world and was the subject of Dutch plots to keep prices high and of English and French counterplots to obtain fertile seeds for transplantation.
Until the mid-19th century, the Spice Islands, was the only location of the production of the spices nutmeg and mace in the world.
As a result of the Dutch interregnum during the Napoleonic Wars, the British took temporary control of the Spice Islands from the Dutch and transplanted nutmeg trees, complete with soil, to Sri Lanka, Penang, Bencoolen, and Singapore. From these locations they were transplanted to their other colonial holdings elsewhere, notably Zanzibar and Grenada.
Today, Indonesia and Grenada dominate production and exports of both products, with world market shares of 75% and 20%, respectively. Other producers include India, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Caribbean islands.
Nutmeg tree is a small evergreen tree, usually 5–13 m (16–43 ft) tall, but occasionally reaching 20 m (66 ft). The tree may bear fruit for more than 60 years.
The alternately arranged leaves are dark green,5–15 cm (2.0–5.9 in) long by 2–7 cm (0.8–2.8 in) wide with petioles about 1 cm (0.4 in) long.
The species is dioecious, i.e. “male” or staminate flowers and “female” or carpellate flowers are borne on different plants, although occasional individuals produce both kinds of flower. The flowers are bell-shaped, pale yellow and somewhat waxy and fleshy. Staminate flowers are arranged in groups of one to ten, each 5–7 mm (0.2–0.3 in) long; carpellate flowers are in smaller groups, one to three, and somewhat longer, up to 10 mm (0.4 in) long.
Trees produce smooth yellow ovoid or pear-shaped fruits, 6–9 cm (2.4–3.5 in) long with a diameter of 3.5–5 cm (1.4–2.0 in). The fruit has a fleshy husk. When ripe the husk splits into two halves along a ridge running the length of the fruit.
Inside is a purple-brown shiny seed, 2–3 cm (0.8–1.2 in) long by about 2 cm (0.8 in) across, with a red or crimson covering (an aril).
Nutmeg has a distinctive pungent fragrance and a warm slightly sweet taste; it is used to flavor many kinds of baked goods, confections, puddings, potatoes, meats, sausages, sauces, vegetables, and such beverages as eggnog.
Mace’s flavor is similar to nutmeg but more delicate ; it is used to flavor baked goods, meat, fish, vegetables and in preserving and pickling. The more delicate flavor of mace makes this spice much more expensive than nutmeg; and also because its yield is about ten times less that of nutmeg.
Nutmeg is known to impact health in many ways because of its nutritive content of vitamins, minerals, and organic compounds related to the essential oils. These beneficial components include dietary fiber, manganese, thiamin, vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, copper, and macelignan.
The health benefits of nutmeg include ability to relieve pain, reduce insomnia, detoxify the body, helps digestion, brightens skin, protect the teeth and gums, helps lower blood pressure, increases circulation, prevents leukemiand and protect cognitive functionality against degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Nutmeg butter is obtained from the nut by expression. It is semisolid, reddish-brown in colour, and tastes and smells of nutmeg.
The essential oil obtained by steam distillation of ground nutmeg is used widely in the perfumery and pharmaceutical industries.
Nutmeg contains myristicin, a natural compound that has mind-altering effects if ingested in large doses. The buzz can last one to two days and can be hallucinogenic, much like LSD.
Exactly how much nutmeg you can tolerate before becoming ill depends partly on your body mass. In one case, an eight-year-old child ate just 14 grams (0.5 ounce) of nutmeg and died from the effects, according to A.K. Demetriades, M.D., of University College London Hospital. From 1 to 3 tbsp. of nutmeg powder, or 1 to 3 whole nutmeg seeds, causes illness in most people.
Nutmeg is highly neurotoxic to dogs and causes seizures, tremors, and nervous system disorders which can be fatal.
Connecticut’s nickname is the “Nutmeg State” because its early inhabitants had the reputation of being so ingenious and shrewd that they were able to make and sell wooden nutmegs. Sam Slick (Judge Halliburton) seems to be the originator of this story. Some claim that wooden nutmegs were actually sold, but they do not give either the time or the place.”