The nutmeg tree is a tropical evergreen originally native to the Molucca Islands in Indonesia. It has been widely cultivated and is grown in tropical climates around the world. Nutmeg trees are grown primarily as sources of seeds that are used to make two popular spices used in cooking. Both nutmeg and mace are derived from the fruit of the nutmeg tree.
A nutmeg tree is a large aromatic evergreen, typically growing to a height of 40 feet (12.2 m) and capable of reaching heights of 70 feet (21.3 m). Its pointed leaves are dark green and measure approximately 4 inches (10.2 cm) long. The nutmeg tree is dioecious, meaning that each tree has a specific gender, and both male and female trees produce fruits.
Both male and female trees produce bell-shaped flowers with pale yellow, waxy petals. After being pollinated, the female flowers produce fleshy fruits that are similar in shape to an apricot, with a groove running its length. The fruit splits along this groove to reveal a large seed with a bright red covering.
Mace is made from the seed’s red outer layer. This layer, called the aril, is carefully removed from the kernel and left to air dry. As it dries, the aril turns a yellowish brown and becomes brittle. After it is dry, it can be ground fine for use in cooking.
The seeds take about two months to dry fully, which is known when the kernel rattles inside the shell. The kernel is the portion that people know as nutmeg. Nutmeg kernels can be ground immediately for ease of use and packaging, but often they are left whole to maintain their flavor longer.
Through the Middle Ages, Arab traders imported nutmeg to the West, careful to conceal the spice’s origin. They enjoyed a profitable monopoly until Portugal conquered the Moluccas in 1511. The Portuguese, and later the Dutch, attempted to maintain this monopoly for centuries by restricting growth of the nutmeg tree to two islands, but by the end of the 18th century, nutmeg plantations had sprung up in Africa and the Caribbean.
By the beginning of the 21st century, nutmeg growing had reached Malaysia, India and Papua New Guinea. Established nutmeg tree populations in the Caribbean and southern portions of Africa have continued to flourish. Despite this, the bulk of nutmeg production has centered on the tree’s native region, with Indonesia and Grenada dominating the world market.