Plant 368

Myristica fragrans Houtt. (Myristicaceae)


The Maluku Islands (Moluccas), eastern Indonesia, have an important place in European colonial history because, until the nineteenth century, these islands were the only place where nutmeg and mace grew. Before Arab and Persian traders began importing nutmeg about one thousand years ago, it was unknown in Europe. As nutmeg was moved from its eastern source, through multiple intermediaries, both price and prestige was enhanced. The Tudor physician Thomas Cogan praised nutmeg as ideal food for students, especially ‘if they can get nutmeg condite [candied]’. Both parts of the scientific name are references to the tree’s fragrance.

Nutmeg and mace both derive from the same evergreen tree, Myristica fragrans. Its yellow fruit, the size of a ping-pong ball, has a thick, fleshy wall encasing a hard, shiny brown, seed, which is covered in a thin mesh of red, fleshy coat (aril). The dried seed is nutmeg, the dried aril is mace. The earliest, most complete first-hand account of nutmeg as a growing tree was made by the German-Dutch botanist Georg Rumphius, the ‘blind seer of Ambon’, in the 1660s, although his work remained unpublished until nearly a century later.

The populated islands were discovered by the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century and fought over by European countries as the Dutch East India Company, in the mid-seventeenth century, established a brutal spice monopoly. Eventually, at the end of the eighteenth century, the British and French established nutmeg plantations in Malaysia and Mauritius – breaking the monopoly. Today, nutmeg is widely grown across the tropics and is a commonplace spice in foods worldwide.

Aspects of the biology of the nutmeg tree’s aided creation of the monopoly. The natural range is highly restricted. Trees are male or female, with the females taking about a decade a start producing fruit. The fat-rich seeds cannot be stored for more than a few weeks if they are to germinate, and vegetative propagation is difficult. Nutmeg seeds are dispersed by birds, which eat the aril and discard the seed. Intriguingly, in 1689, the traveller John Ovington stated this biological observation implied that planted nutmeg would not thrive: ‘them as Fructifie and arrive at perfection, arise from a ripe Nutmeg swallowed whole by a certain Bird in those Islands, which disgorges it again without digesting it, and this falling to the ground with that slimy matter it brought along with it, takes root and grows a useful Tree’.

Further reading

Armstrong JE and Drummond BA 1986. Floral biology of Myristica fragrans Houtt. (Myristicaceae), the nutmeg of commerce. Biotropica 18: 32-38.

Milton G 1999. Nathaniel’s nutmeg. Spectre.

Spary EC 2005. Of nutmegs and botanists. The colonial cultivation of botanical identity. In: Schiebinger L and Swan C Colonial botany. Science, commerce, and politics in the early modern world. University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 187-203.

Stephen Harris