Name: Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
Otherwise known as: Sadhika
Habitat: An evergreen tree member of the Myristicaceae growing up to 10m in humid coastal areas in the Moluccan islands. It has scented leaves and tiny yellow flowers. Native to Indonesia, it is now grown commercially in the Caribbean islands.
What does it do: The tree does not fruit until it is eight years old but will continue to do so for the next 60 years. The fruit comes in three parts: there is a woody seed covering that encases the nutmeg, which is coated by the aril – better known as mace – which is red when fresh, and becomes yellow during the drying process. The fruit is picked when ripe and the nutmeg and mace are separated and dried. Nutmeg caused as much conflict and suffering in the 17th century as the opium and cocaine trade today.
Nutmeg proved irresistible to navigators, traders, and merchant adventurers. The fortunes of Venice, Genoa, Madrid, Lisbon, London and Amsterdam were built on the back of this plant. Marco Polo and Rustichello introduced nutmeg to the Europeans. The plant was traded by the Indians and the Arabs but its source was a mystery until Polo referred to it in his Travels, which inspired the search for the Spice Islands.
The main constituents are monoterpene hydrocarbons; mainly camphene, pinene, cymene and myristicin. It is a prostaglandin inhibitor, anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrhoeal, sedative and a digestive stimulant.
In India, nutmeg is used to increase sexual stamina, and ground into a paste and applied topically for eczema and ringworm. In Chinese medicine it is used to cure diarrhea and to relieve abdominal pains.
Western herbalists recommend it to treat nausea, vomiting, digestive disorders and specifically gastroenteritis. It has proved useful in treating palpitations and headache arising from stress. Although the spice is an essential ingredient of rice pudding and other seasonal culinary delights beware at high doses nutmeg is toxic and hallucinogenic. Before it was easy to obtain drugs when incarcerated prisoners would relieve their boredom by chewing large amounts of nutmeg – which, according to prison records, sometimes proved fatal.