King's College London
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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

The colourful history of nutmeg

Photograph of a woman gathering nutmeg in a basket at the harvest in Grenada, Windward IslandsPhotograph of a woman gathering nutmeg in a basket at the harvest in Grenada, Windward IslandsGrenada and Indonesia dominate world production of nutmeg and its related product, mace. Nutmeg forms the seed of the tree, while mace comprises the outer covering of this seed. Nutmeg has a colourful history. It was a much sought after and traded product from medieval times onwards.

In the 17th century the English and Dutch fought over control of the Banda Islands in the East Indies, at the time the only place where nutmeg grew. When Britain finally gained control of the main island in the Banda archipelago, Run Island, in 1817, nutmeg trees were transported to Grenada and Zanzibar to consolidate control of the nutmeg and mace trade.

Nutmeg has historically been used as a preservative and flavouring agent, in perfumery and in medical treatments. In one of the more quackish of these medicinal uses it was employed to ward off plague.

Nutmeg’s versatility makes it suitable for a large variety of international culinary uses, including in wine, pumpkin pie and curries, as well as in nutmeg butter. In large doses it is also said to produce psychoactive effects. The image here shows nutmeg being harvested in Grenada before the country gained its independence from Britain in 1974.

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