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What Is a Nutmeg Tree?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 16, 2024
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The nutmeg tree is a tropical evergreen originally native to the Molucca Islands in Indonesia. It has been widely cultivated and is grown in tropical climates around the world. Nutmeg trees are grown primarily as sources of seeds that are used to make two popular spices used in cooking. Both nutmeg and mace are derived from the fruit of the nutmeg tree.

A nutmeg tree is a large aromatic evergreen, typically growing to a height of 40 feet (12.2 m) and capable of reaching heights of 70 feet (21.3 m). Its pointed leaves are dark green and measure approximately 4 inches (10.2 cm) long. The nutmeg tree is dioecious, meaning that each tree has a specific gender, and both male and female trees produce fruits.

Both male and female trees produce bell-shaped flowers with pale yellow, waxy petals. After being pollinated, the female flowers produce fleshy fruits that are similar in shape to an apricot, with a groove running its length. The fruit splits along this groove to reveal a large seed with a bright red covering.

Mace is made from the seed’s red outer layer. This layer, called the aril, is carefully removed from the kernel and left to air dry. As it dries, the aril turns a yellowish brown and becomes brittle. After it is dry, it can be ground fine for use in cooking.

The seeds take about two months to dry fully, which is known when the kernel rattles inside the shell. The kernel is the portion that people know as nutmeg. Nutmeg kernels can be ground immediately for ease of use and packaging, but often they are left whole to maintain their flavor longer.

Through the Middle Ages, Arab traders imported nutmeg to the West, careful to conceal the spice’s origin. They enjoyed a profitable monopoly until Portugal conquered the Moluccas in 1511. The Portuguese, and later the Dutch, attempted to maintain this monopoly for centuries by restricting growth of the nutmeg tree to two islands, but by the end of the 18th century, nutmeg plantations had sprung up in Africa and the Caribbean.

By the beginning of the 21st century, nutmeg growing had reached Malaysia, India and Papua New Guinea. Established nutmeg tree populations in the Caribbean and southern portions of Africa have continued to flourish. Despite this, the bulk of nutmeg production has centered on the tree’s native region, with Indonesia and Grenada dominating the world market.

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Discussion Comments
By umbra21 — On Jan 15, 2012

@pleonasm - That's interesting. I knew that people used to use nutmeg as a kind of snuff (which is like tobacco but taken in through sniffing it up the nose) but I didn't realize it actually had hallucinogenic qualities.

I'm surprised they still allow them to sell it in stores! You must have to do something special to it in order to make it act like a drug, maybe.

I've heard that it's considered only borderline safe when you are pregnant and taking too much can hurt the fetus.

Generally it's not considered enough of a risk to warn women about it, but I know a couple of my friends just avoided it just in case.

I think it's a shame that it is a tropical tree. It sounds like it might be a nice one to have in the garden, since it produces two kinds of spices with the same fruit.

But, usually there's all kinds of production needed to make a fruit into a spice, so I suppose even if I had one I wouldn't have time to process it.

By pleonasm — On Jan 14, 2012

Nutmeg is actually a bit of a hallucinogenic. It is harmless and has no effect in the small amounts people generally use for eating.

But if you have a whole lot of it you can experience hallucinations. Too much and you'll be in a lot of pain and can actually die, but you'd need to eat an awful lot for that to happen.

I've also heard that nut meg is poisonous to dogs even in small amounts, so you have to be careful never to give them anything which might have nutmeg in it. Like eggnog for example.

But then I don't think you should ever really give your dogs things from the table unless they are obviously harmless, like beef bones. It's just too easy to get it wrong and hurt them.

By browncoat — On Jan 13, 2012

I think we often take for granted all the different spices that we can get in the supermarket. When you think about how they all just come in the same bland little boxes, when only a hundred years ago they would arrive in ports and be sold at a market for many times what we pay for them.

I completely take nutmeg for granted, but at one point it was only grown in a few places and I imagine that only rich people would have been able to afford it. Instead of sprinkling it all over their hot chocolate like I do, they would have measured it out or even used it as currency.

And the same goes for almost any spice you could name, and which we just keep as a matter of course in the cupboard now.

We are really very lucky to live in the age that we do.

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