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Myristica fragrans is remarkable among spice plants in that it yields two important products, nutmeg and mace. This species originated in the Maluku Islands (the Indonesian archipelago also known as the Moluccas), but is probably never found wild. Both nutmeg and mace were well known in Europe by the end of the 12th century. They are now grown in most tropical countries, but Grenada (West Indies) and Indonesia account for the bulk of world production (although Grenada has struggled in recent years with large scale damage from a series of hurricanes).

This aromatic evergreen tree grows to 9 to 12 (sometimes 20) m in height with spreading branches. The flowers are cream-colored and up to 1 cm in length. They develop into yellow fleshy fruits, 6 to 9 cm in length, that are somewhat similar in appearance to apricots. The ripe fruit splits to expose a single glossy purple-brown ~2.5 cm nut (seed) enclosed by a scarlet aril. The seed, after its coat is removed, is the nutmeg spice. The aril is the mace spice, which, after drying, turns brown. The tree produces fruit year-round, but the harvest usually occurs in April and November.

Armstrong and Drummond (1986) studied the floral biology of this species under cultivation in southern India. It is dioecious (i.e., male and female flowers are typically borne on separate individual plants). The staminate (male-functioning) flowers are borne in indeterminate inflorescences and function for just a single night. Pistillate (female-functioning) flowers are borne singly and appear to be receptive for 2 to 3 days. Staminate plants may produce over 50 times as many flowers as pistillate plants. Both types of flowers are strongly fragrant. Armstrong and Drummond identified an anthicid beetle, Formicomus bramin, as a likely important pollinator in southern India.

Nutmeg (often powdered) is used to flavor milk dishes, cakes, and punches; mace is used in savory dishes, pickles, and ketchups. Damaged nutmegs have sometimes been processed to make nutmeg butter (triglyceride oil) and nutmeg oil (an essential oil). The aromatic fraction of nutmeg contains mainly (85 to 95%) myristicin, elemicin, and safrole, which are unsafe if consumed in large quantities. Nutmeg has sometimes been used by individuals (most famously, Malcolm X) interested in experiencing its purported hallucinogenic effects, although most reported effects sound more unpleasant than recreational (see Barceloux 2008 and references therein for details). Myristicin is structurally similar to kavain and related psychoactive constituents of kava (Piper methysticum). Myristicin is also found in plants from the carrot (Apiaceae) family including dilll, celery, parsley, and black pepper (Piper nigrum).

Cox (1994) reported on the traditional culinary and medicinal uses of nutmeg in its native range in Indonesia (specifically, the "Spice Islands" of Maluku and Java).

(Vaughan and Geissler 1997; Barceloux 2008 and references therein)


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