Myristica fragrans: Nutmeg tree

Family: Myristicaceae
Common name: Nutmeg, True nutmeg, Fragrant nutmeg, Jathi, Jathikka

Nutmeg trees are seen very commonly in Kerala, the southernmost state of India, considered to be the spice capital of the world in olden days. The tree grows to a height of 15-20 meters with a well-rounded, bushy crown and greyish-brown bark.

Leaves are dark green, alternate, with a glossy sheen, about 6-12 cms long. Nutmeg tree leaves are evergreen, keeping the tree green and vibrant year-round.

These trees are dioecious, male trees producing only male flowers, female trees producing flowers as well as fruits. Very rarely, few trees produce both male and female flowers.

Flowers are small, bell-shaped, pale yellow in color, growing in bunches. Male or staminate flowers are smaller, growing in bunches of 1-10; whereas female or staminate flowers are larger, growing in bunches of 1-3. The flowers are edible, and tastes faintly like the fruits.

There are no way to figure out whether a tree is male or female till they produce flowers, after 5-8 years of growth. During this time, female trees produce large rounded fruits that are 4-6 cms in diameter. Once the fruits mature, they split open along the groove in the center, revealing a black seed inside. Inside this seed is nutmeg; and surrounding this seed is the deep red, fiber-like mace.

Mace fibers can be easily separated from the seed, dried and then ground to form the spice that’s used in meat preparations and also desserts. Once the seed dries, the nutmeg inside shrinks and you can hear it shaking. Break open the outer shell of the seed to reveal the nutmeg inside, which has a rough outer surface. Nutmeg can be ground and used as a spice, or grated freshly and used in dishes, using a microplane.

Nutmeg fruits is used to produce jams, jellies, wines, candies, pickles or chutneys; and is also used in a variety of savory dishes. Nutmeg and mace have a light spicy taste, that adds warmth to meat or potato dishes, without making it excessively spicy.

Both nutmeg and mace are part of the famous Indian garam masala, a rich, unique blend of multiple spices, used in meat, paneer, or potato dishes. No Indian kitchen is complete without a homemade version of garam masala, used liberally in many dishes, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

Nutmeg trees are native to Indonesia, still the largest producer of nutmeg and mace. Although they are now grown in many Asian countries like India, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, SriLanka; and even South America. In small quantities, nutmeg with honey helps relieve bloating and stomach ailments. It is also used in treatment of vomiting, diarrhea, tooth pain, insomnia, urinary ailments and indigestion.

Nutmeg oil and nutmeg butter are other products obtained from Myristica fragrans tree. Wood from the tree is used for flooring, light construction, paneling, crates, wooden handles, packing cases and utensils.

Propagation is through seeds, layering or grafting; the latter methods being more popular than seed propagation.

Image courtesy: Paulsy Willy