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The nutmeg family, Myristicaceae, order Magnoliales, consists of evergreen trees of the tropical rain forests. The genus Myristica includes about 120 species, the best known of which is the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans).

The nutmeg tree is native to the Moluccas, a group of islands in eastern Indonesia, also known as the Spice Islands. However, nutmeg is now cultivated in much of southern Asia, the West Indies, and Brazil. The nutmeg tree is the source of nutmeg and mace, two valuable spices that have been the objects of secret trading, theft, monopolies, and violent battles. Other Myristica species, such as M. argentea, M. malabarica, and M. fatua, are rather similar to M. fragrans. However, their fruit does not have the characteristic, intense aroma or flavor, and these species are only used for local medicinal purposes, as food additives, or for adulteration of more-valuable nutmeg or mace.

Myristica fragrans can reach a height of 60 ft (20 m) and has leathery, somewhat aromatic leaves that grow to about 6 in (15 cm) long. This dioecious (male and female flowers occur on separate plants) tree has small, unscented, yellow flowers that superficially resemble those of lily-of-the-valley. Plantations cultivate mostly female trees, but intersperse them with male trees. When the tree is about eight years old, it bears its first crop of fruit, and it can continue to bear fruit up to the age of 80-100 years.

The tough, yellowish, one-seeded fruit (known as a drupe) is about 2 in (5 cm) in diameter and has a peach-like shape. When ripe, the fleshy outer covering of the fruit splits open, revealing its oval seed (the nutmeg), which is wrapped in a bright, red-orange, lacy covering called an aril (the mace).

After the fruit is picked, the outer covering is removed. The aril is taken off the seed, flattened into strips, dried, and sold either as whole strips or finely ground. The seeds are air-dried for several weeks, or sometimes, more rapidly over a fire. The nutmeg kernel is removed from the seed coat or husk, and is then dipped in lime to prevent insect infestation and seed germination. Nutmeg is sold either whole or ground up.

The nutmeg tree flowers and bears fruit year-round. The trees are harvested two to three times per year, with an annual average of 500 fruits (nutmegs) per tree. About 400 lb (180 kg) are needed to produce 1 lb (0.5 kg) of mace.

The inferior, or damaged fruits are made into oil of mace or nutmeg butter, and sold to industries for the manufacturing of soap, perfume, flavoring for candy, gum, soft drinks, and condiments. Nutmeg is often used in rich foods and sauces (for example, in eggnog and custard), and baked goods. Mace has a similar flavor to nutmeg, but is much more subtle, and is used in baked goods, sauces, soups, and meat dishes.

Nutmeg has been used medicinally for its sedative properties. An alkaloid-like substance called myristicin is a psychotropic, which in excessive doses can cause hallucinations, disorientation, and convulsions.

Christine Miner Minderovic

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