October 2, 2015
By Trevor Hylton
We use a lot of herbs and spices each day without giving much thought about where they come from and how they are grown. One of the most common spices found in just about every American spice rack is nutmeg. Myristica fragans as it is scientifically known is indigenous to Indonesia. Today most of the world’s nutmeg production comes from Indonesia and Grenada.
The tree on which this fruit is grown can get up to 70 feet tall and as wide as 25 feet at maturity. Trees can be grown from seed or the more common practice is to reproduce by graft. To grow from seed, planting must be done shortly after harvesting because they have very low viability. Strangely enough, these seeds take a long time to germinate, sometimes upwards of 5 weeks. Most trees will not begin to flower until they are at least 8 years old at, which time it will be determined if it is a male or female tree. This is the main reason why grafted trees are preferred because 8 years is long time to wait to find out if you have a tree that will bear fruit. Trees that are grafted from a female tree will start producing in 3 years and will reach maximum production in 15 to 25 years. What is great about this tree is that it will continue producing for nearly 50 years so you can see that nutmeg production is a very long term investment but luckily maintenance is very low once the trees are established.
The fleshy yellow fruit of the nutmeg is highly flavorful and is often eaten as a fruit salad. It is also used to make jams, jellies and syrups. Other usable parts of the nutmeg are; seed and the mace. The mace is the bright red web that wraps around the shell of the seed.
Nutmeg is prized as a medicinal, flavoring, and preservative agent. It is considered safe when used in foods for flavoring. It is believed to have psychoactive properties when taken in large doses. As a high school student growing up in the Caribbean I have vivid memories of my classmates putting nutmeg powder on their lips before a cross country race because it was widely believed that it would improve endurance and relieve fatigue. I cannot recall any of those runners placing in the top 10 but I would imagine that they did not have foul breath after those races because the antibacterial properties of the nutmeg is said to be good for fighting malodorous breath.
Nutmeg is not a nut but it is a mega spice and as such pose no risk to persons who have nut allergies. Nutmeg is actually a fruit with a single seed which makes it a drupe, similar to an apricot. This peculiar seed has many uses; if you have difficulty sleeping at night, drink a cup of milk with some nutmeg powder. This will help you achieve relaxation and will induce sleep. Used in small dosages nutmeg can reduce flatulence, aid digestion, improve the appetite and treat diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. Nutmeg’s flavor and fragrance come from oil of myristica, containing myristicin, a poisonous narcotic. Myristicin can cause hallucinations, vomiting; epileptic symptoms and large dosages can cause death. These effects will not be induced, however, even with generous culinary usage.
Besides being used in toothpastes, cough syrups, perfumes and the cosmetic industry, nutmeg oil is mixed externally with almond oil and is used to relieve rheumatic pain.
Whole nutmegs almost never lose their pungency they release their oils only when grated. Pictured here are seeds that were collected over 5 years ago and they still are very flavorful when grated. Nutmeg is usually associated with sweet, spicy dishes like pies, puddings, custards, cookies and cakes. It combines well with many cheeses, and is included in soufflés and cheese sauces. It complements egg dishes and vegetables like cabbage, spinach, broccoli, beans onions and eggplant. During the Christmas season it is essential to eggnog.
Trevor Hylton is an Extension Agent with Florida A&M University and University of Florida IFAS Extension in Leon and Wakulla Counties.For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov