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a plant story about an aromatic marvel - Norbert Peeters

In this article I want to offer a new way of looking at nutmeg. This fresh look does require a change in the way we think about plants. American author Michael Pollan discusses this shift in the introduction of The Botany of Desire (2001). Pollan starts with a question about the difference between a gardener and a bumblebee. At first glance they seem to have little in common. On closer inspection though, they both dedicate themselves to distributing and propagating plant species. One by way of plant care and scattering of sowing seed, the other by way of transfer of pollen from one flower to the other. With respect to the bumblebee and the flowering plant it is customary to speak of a collaborative partnership. After all, both benefit from this relationship; cross-pollination in exchange for nourishing nectar. At the same time, we are inclined to think when it comes to the gardener that only man benefits from his relationship with garden plants.

colonial rule

Why isn’t the relationship between gardener and garden plant considered to be reciprocal? According to Pollan an important reason for this lies in our language. By means of grammar the world is divided into subjects and objects. The same goes for the gardening world. The gardener chooses the seeds, clears out the weeds, decides which plants are allowed to thrive and uses the shears and the lawn mower. In all these actions the gardener is the subject all the time and the plant the (direct) object. Because of this, you tend to think there is only a one-sided power relationship. But let us reverse the roles. Consider that plants seduce and manipulate man, for example by way of flowers or fruit. Every need of plants is met in gardens, plantations and fields. They get a vacant seedbed and enjoy constant protection from external infestations. Moreover, they get sprinkled with water in case of drought and their soil is enriched with the necessary minerals. To illustrate the various ways in which plants profit from their relationship with people, Pollan discusses four well-known bred plant species, the apple, tulip, marihuana and potato. However, one important plant category that is disregarded by him is that of spices.

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Nutmeg and the bright red mace

Besides plants with narcotic properties, like the coffee plant, the tobacco plant and the opium poppy, not a single other plant group has such obvious power over man as spice plants do. History shows that also the spices have an almost addictive effect on man. Each spice, whether it be pepper, clove of cinnamon, tells its own history of dangerous sea voyages, bloody battles, colonial domination and capitalist profiteering. Although the spices are the focal point of these stories, these are only presented as stage props in a human drama. And for a good reason: after all, this history is recorded and studied by people. However, I do wish to attempt to reverse the roles in this article and offer a spice plant the stage. With the nutmeg tree as subject, I want to tell the story about this aromatic marvel.


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Nutmeg as depicted in a breviary

second Colchis

“Not to pat myself on the bark, but my luscious aromas are world-famous.” Nowadays, my spices, nutmeg and mace, flavour countless drinks, sauces and food and I have gained a permanent place in the spice rack of practically every kitchen. My global rise has been taking place in the latest millennium. Even though I have also been well-known to be desirable merchandise among the seafaring peoples of the Moluccas well before already. At an excavation on the Bandanese island of Ay, remnants of nutmeg have been found on 3,500- year-old pottery! Over time, my influence has extended across the whole Malaysian archipelago and my fame also reaches coasts situated further on, like China and the Arab countries. Physicians like the famous Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) praise my name and try to unravel my aromatic and medicinal secrets. As soon as rumours about the nutmeg bonanza on the Banda Islands reach the European rulers, my status takes on almost mythical proportions in the sixteenth century.

In his Amboinsche Kruidboek (catalogue  of plants) (1741-1750), naturalist Georg Everhard Rumphius calls the Moluccas a ‘second Colchis’. With this he recalls the legendary kingdom from Greek Mythology of Jason and the Argonauts. Colchis is where the Golden Fleece was kept, which allowed Jason to claim the rightful rule of the kingdom of his home town Iolcus. Before his quest he rests on the ship, the Argo, and he summons his most competent crew. Among the Argonauts there are a few familiar faces from the Greek pantheon of heroes: club-wielding Heracles, Minotaur killer Theseus, twin brothers Castor & Pollux and lyre-playing Orpheus. En route the crew endures numerous ordeals, among which confrontations with six-arm giants, flying harpies and the so-called Symplegades or Clashing Rocks: two rocks that continually clash with each other and crush each passing ship in the process. Ultimately, the Argonauts arrive in Colchis, where it is said a golden ram fleece is hanging on a branch of an old oak in a forest that is dedicated to the war god Ares and  that is guarded by a never resting dragon. After Jason completes various tasks, he is able to seize the Golden Fleece, aided by the magic of Medea (King Aeëtes’ daughter).

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Still from a film made by Des Alwi, from the 1980’s

religious madness

But enough about Greek heroic stories. The reason that Rumphius calls my country of origin a ‘second Colchis’ is because he considers my edele vrugten (my precious fruit) a second golden fleece. This time ‘Castilien and Portugaal’, and later the English trading company too, go on a quest. They have fleets equipped and risk dangerous sea voyages to the East to fight each other there for the trading hegemony over my spices. From the beginning of the seventeenth century wealthy merchants of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie-VOC) get involved in this fight. In short, the Europeans get so captivated by my spices that they compete for the monopoly of my fruit. They even cite religious reasons, as an alibi for their obsession and justification for their violence. Not only does my existence fuel mythical comparisons, but even religious insanity.  The firm conviction exists among Westerners, that my fruit is God-given. Rumphius, who was mentioned before, writes about this religious line of reasoning.
Like God takes pleasure in hiding ‘the glinsterende gesteente, ‘t roode metaal, en andere kleinodien in de diepe ingewanden des aardtryks te verbergen’ (glistening rock, the red metal, and other gems in the deep bowels of the earth), he chose a group of islands ‘in den alderuittersten hoek des oosterschen oceaans’ (in the very furthest corner of the eastern ocean), to be planted with the most precious plants. In other words, God has made it particularly difficult for his subjects to gather earthly riches. He encourages the Europeans to descend into the depths of the earth or to make daring sea voyages to remote islands. For the sake of convenience, they forgot the nutmeg culture on the Moluccas and the cultural tie between me and many other peoples.”

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drawing from the book by Rumphius (University library Leiden)

let me introduce myself

“Let me introduce myself without further ado.  To make it easy I will start with the official name under which I am registered at the registry office of Botany: Myristica fragrans (Houtt.). I have this scientific name thanks to Dutch naturalist Maarten Houttuyn. In volume two of his Natuurlyke historie (Natural history) (1774) he chooses a species name based on my most distinctive quality (for people). The Latin word ‘fragrans’ means ‘pungent scent’ or ‘fragrant’.  Furthermore, I have quite a few popular names. Despite the diversity of languages in the Malaysian archipelago, I am known by the name ‘pala’ on every island. Albeit that on the North-Moluccan island of Ternate they also speak of ‘gozora’. Later the Chinese gave me the nickname ‘tow-kow’, which means something like ‘bean of the pirate plant’. And in the Arab countries I became known under the names ‘gauz buwa’ or ‘gauz-et-tib’. ‘Gauz’ is Arabic for ‘nut’ and ‘gauz-et-tib’ means ‘fragrant nut’. Apart from the various spellings, I am also known in Europe under One common term: from the Italian ‘noce muscada’, the French ‘noix muscade’, and the Spanish ‘nuez moscado’, to the English ‘nutmeg’, the German ‘Moskaten-Nussen’ and the Dutch ‘nootmuskaat’. That much is clear: in almost all of my names I am reduced to my aromatic qualities.
For centuries, people were only interested in my spices nutmeg and mace, outside my country of origin. It is only at the beginning of the seventeenth century that scientific interest for me as a plant arises. The first Dutch trading expedition to Banda brings back not only a hold filled with nutmeg and mace, but also a herbarium sample. Ultimately this sample ends up in the hands of the Leiden prefect of the Hortus Botanicus, Carolus Clusius. In the first volume of Exoticorum libri decem (the exotic life in ten volumes, 1605) he gives an accurate description of my plant properties. In doing that he debunks various rumours that are circulating about me. Some scholars claimed that my blossom is sought after clove, others believed that mace is the flower of the nutmeg and still others believed that my leaf is serrated. Next to his description Clusius shows an image of the herbarium sample. A shoot with some green and a fruit dangling from the end: the ‘apple of discord’ between the colonial powers.”

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‘Het Kruydtboeck’ (Book on Spices) by De Lobel (coll. Museum Plantin-Moretus)

nutmeg botany

“You too probably only know me in powdered form. Or maybe you have a small bag with veined nuts or a box of yellowed mace at the back of your spice rack. Botanically speaking, mace is the seed coat or the webbing (‘arillus’) and the nutmeg is the kernel (‘endosperm’). However, these details say nothing about my shape. To begin with I am what botanists call an evergreen tree species. When fully grown I most resemble my aromatic counterpart, the clove tree, with a somewhat rounder crown. Though that probably doesn’t tell you much either. That’s why it is better to compare me to a pear tree. In terms of leaves I look somewhat like a pear tree, although my leaf does not show jagged edges. For that matter my leaf shape does know quite some variation: elliptical, oval or lanceolate, with a long leaf tip and varying in length between six and fifteen centimetres. On the twig my leaves stand on short stems, alternately arranged in rows of two. I only start bearing flowers and fruit from ages five and six onward. Moreover, I do not grow particularly old. On average, I reach an age of about sixty, and a few reach a hundred or more. Unlike, for instance, the durian tree or the kenari tree I am not a rain forest giant. I belong to the average level height trees in the rain forest and you can recognise me by my conical or pyramidal crown and my smooth, ashen-green bark. My final height depends on the soil and the climate in which I grow. For example, in the botanical garden of Singapore I reach a height of six to nine metres, while I easily grow to heights of twelve to eighteen metres, with an occasional exception to twenty metres on the Banda Islands. Underground my large, vertical tap root and the smaller horizontal roots ensure the necessary stability and water intake. I am somewhat demanding when it comes to soil and climate. I prefer growing on rich, fertile volcanic soil in the tropical sun. Though I do also thrive on poorer soils in the hinterlands of the islands Seram and Papua New Guinea. I do prefer to root in permeable soil, that is not too loamy or too sandy. A high percentage of loam retains the water and causes root rot, and a high percentage of sand causes the water to sink fast and my roots to dry out. It may sound as if I am very fussy and therefore very vulnerable. However, I have been surviving on my own for centuries and I belong to a rich genus of as much as a hundred and fifty varieties.”

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Nutmeg plantation, watercolour by QMR Ver Huell (coll. Maritiem Museum Rotterdam)

aromatic insecticide

“The lion’s share of my life I have had nothing to do with people. Just like any other wild plant I had to fend for myself. That is no easy task. Due to the dense canopy of the jungle the forest soil is wet and soggy for plants. Hardly any sunshine  reaches the forest floor. And even if I do manage to get a place in the sun, I have to defend myself against hordes of grazers, insects and fungi. When you stand rooted to the ground, good preparation is a must. To begin with I own my own hospital. The earlier-mentioned Kruidboek by Rumphius contains a good illustration of this.  Rumphius notes that when you cut into my bark or break off a branch, I produce a red and sticky sap ‘als dun bloet’ (like thin blood). I disinfect my wounds with this red resin and dress these immediately so that fungi and other infections don’t stand a chance. And this resin is just my first line of defence. I also synthesise my own insecticide. Oddly enough this insecticide, called ‘myristic acid’ or rather ‘myristicine’, is an important part of the very popular etheric oil in the mace and nutmeg. The reason I provide my seeds and fruit with an insecticide isn’t hard to figure out. Because I don’t make it for man. The mace is a lure with which I spread my seeds and the seeds are my offspring. Any chemical defence against insect infestation is no superfluous luxury. Rumphius lets slip that my fruit sometimes contains short thick larvae that eat the mace. Also, when the nuts lie on the ground, they often fall victim to voracious insects.

Actually, this insecticide isn’t just poisonous for the small brats that are beleaguering me. A high dose of myristicine turns out to be harmful to man too. Although Rumphius is not familiar with the existence of this substance, he is one of the first to warn against excessive use of nutmeg. In the chapter about the ‘Kragten en Gebruik der Noote Musschaten’ (Powers and Use of the nutmegs) he advises against using nutmeg daily. A high dose of the spice would fill the head with ‘swaare dampen’ (heavy fumes) and would provoke ‘sleeping disease’’. In order to substantiate this, Rumphius gathers a few anecdotes. He hears that, around 1650, two soldiers on Banda had each eaten five or six nuts, without adding anything, which made them ‘gek en half zinneloos’ (crazy and half-deranged). He also hears that, in the year 1655, a few Dutchmen had mixed ‘slegt bier en wyn’ (bad beer and wine) in a bowl and besides sugar they had put in in seven or eight grated nuts. This resulted in ‘benaauwtheyt op de borst en in de keel’ (tightness of the chest and in the throat), a dry mouth, swollen lips that stuck together, the gentlemen got breathing problems ‘swaarte, en draayingen’ (heaviness and spinning) in the head and afterwards they seemed ‘memorye qyut te zyn’ (unable to remember what happened).  Whether these people ingested the nut on purpose because of the hallucinating effect is unknown. Since the 1960s I do enjoy some notoriety in the Western world as a cheap, but certainly not harmless, household drug.”

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Nutmeg in the book on spices by G.E. Rumphius (University Library, Leiden)

nutmeg flowers

“In order to survive in the jungle, it is not only important to defend yourself against assailants; sometimes you also have to manipulate them. That brings me to an important as yet undiscussed part: my flower and pollination biology. I am what botanists call a dioecious tree. That simply means that I carry either male flowers (with just stamen) or female flowers (with just a pistil). Although it does sometimes happen that I have a monocious form with unisexual flowers. In which case I produce both female and male flowers. Even a gender change has been observed in the botanical gardens of Calcutta. A young tree that only produced male flowers, brought forth only female flowers at a later age. As a matter of course my fruit only grows on my female counterpart. My flowers, both the male and the female, have occasionally been compared to the lily of the valley: small, white, bell-shaped flowers. Although the lily of the valley comprises six flower petals and my nutmeg flower only three. Inside the male flower shows a bundle of stamen (a so-called androecium’) and the female flower shows a pistil that, when dissected, carries a single ovule. Another, yet unnamed, quality of my flower is the perfume it disperses. Not only man knows me for my aromatic qualities, but also another important visitor.
Until recently there was little interest in my pollination biology. The question how the pollen of my male flowers ended up on the female flower was never asked. In any case, after dissection it turns out that my flower does not have any nectar glands as compensation for pollination. My insect visitors have to make do with the nutritious pollen. And that is only found in the male inflorescence. Pollinators only visit the female flower by accident, in search of a nutritious meal. The first thorough study of the pollination biology was only done in the 1980s in a commercial nutmeg plantation in in Kerala (India). Only one of the flower visitors that was caught presented himself as a reliable pollinator: a small beetle from the family of ant-like flower beetles Anthicidae). But this study does not provide a complete  overview of my pollination biology.  Kerala is situated far away from my country of origin.  Moreover, this concerns a plantation and not the rain forest. Further research into the pollination biology of a wild nutmeg (Myristica insipida) in Queensland (Australia) that is related to me, has identified nine different beetle species that are possibly responsible for pollination. After a successful pollination attempt, it takes about nine months before the ovary develops into the nutmeg fruit. During  this period the fruit changes from green to light-yellow and ultimately bursts open. After the fruit has split into two halves, the crimson red mace appears, contrasting strongly with the faded-yellow fruit.

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Nutmeg (coll. Rijksmuseum)

nutmeg doves

German botanist Otto Warburg honoured me with a book of over 600 pages, titled: The Nutmeg – Die Muskatnuss (1897). In his report about the fruit, he calls the mace the lure of the nutmeg tree. Thanks to this mace I have a full bird cage of birds at my disposal, that contribute to my seed dispersal. When my offspring lands under my canopy and germinates there, they compete with me for sunlight, water and minerals. That is the reason why I provide my children with a lure to leave the parental home. This lure is meant primarily to attract birds. Nowadays such a form of seed dispersal is called ornithochory: derived from the Greek word ‘ornis’, which means ‘bird’, and ‘chorein’, which means ‘disperse’.

In 1865 British biologist Alfred Russel Wallace writes an article about the doves in the Malaysian Archipelago for the first issue of the bird magazine Ibis. Wallace begins his article with the following statement: the most remarkable and most isolated groups of fructivore birds, namely the doves and the parakeets, reach their maximal development in terms of beauty, variation and biodiversity in exactly the same region. The island Papua New Guinea constitutes the centre of the region that extends in eastern direction to the Solomon Islands and in westerly direction to Celebes and it also covers the Moluccas and Timor. Although this range is only one sixth of the total European surface area, you find over a quarter of all dove species here. He includes the largest dove species to the Carpophaga species (now known by the name Ducula). The ‘metropolis’ of this species lies in New Guinea. Their call is a deep, roaring sound like the roar of a wild animal. The dove possesses the ability to stretch its beak and throat, so that it swallows large fruit whole with the greatest ease. One of the largest and most beautiful species Wallace refers to as the ‘elegant imperial dove’ (Carpophaga concinna, now the Ducula concinna). In Dutch it is also called the ‘grey nutmeg dove’. Wallace has one shot out of the sky on the Kei Islands. It is a sizeable specimen of around fifty centimetres in length, with a blue-whitish colour, the wings and the tail of a metallic green with gold, blue and violet reflections. Its feet are coral red and its beady eyes golden-yellow.

While these nutmeg doves feast on my aril, they swallow de nutmeg whole. That is how my seeds hitch a ride in the digestive tract of these birds to be pooped out again somewhere else.  The nutmeg dove isn’t the only one that feasts on the mace. Other birds like the megapodes (or incubator birds), the hornbill and the cassowary also eat the mace with nut and all. Studies on the related wild nutmeg (Myristica inspida) have shown that there are two stages of seed dispersal. First the fruit opens, so that the nut that is entangled in mace is exposed. The first stage takes two days and at that time the nut can be swallowed by flying birds. After that, the tree lets the nuts fall to the ground, where flightless birds like the southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) spread the seeds overland.

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Nutmeg dove


Eventually I was able to also seduce people besides birds with my fruit. The people have grown to be my main partners. Since the beginning of this partnership the harvest of my spices has remained virtually unchanged. My ripe nutmeg fruit is still always harvested with a long pole, equipped with a small knife and a small basket to catch the fruit. Subsequently, the outer shell is removed and the mace is cut loose with a small knife. The mace membranes are spread out on square bricked sites to dry in the sun for a few days.  Because of the tropical sun the mace colours from scarlet to yellow-orange. The nutmegs are smoked above a smouldering wood fire for weeks on end. Ultimately the nuts are peeled and sorted by quality to subsequently get immersed in a lime bath, to prevent rotting and insect infestation. Although the exorbitant profits of the past are no longer generated, my spices are  still in high demand.

Ground nutmeg gives a sweet, spicy aroma to sweet and savoury dishes. Mace on the other hand is somewhat more intense and fresher in taste. It combines very well with ingredients like chocolate, vanilla, coconut milk and fruit. Ground nutmeg is also used in cheese fondue, casseroles, sauces, meat pies and of course freshly grated on top of potatoes, cauliflower and green beans. Mace is also an important seasoning for sweet and savoury. It is often added to meat dishes, pies and cream soups  and in sweet products, like gingerbread and gingerbread cookies. But the spices mainly play an important role commercially.  In his book Nutmeg – Nootmuskaat (2017) (Nutmeg),  journalist Willem Oosterbeek tells us that 95 percent of the spices goes to industrial use. For example, mace is used to flavour soups, sauces and confectionery.  Yet, it is also used in in icing, ice cream, donuts, ketchup and chutney, a.o. Nutmeg is used in the fish and meat processing industries and in bakery goods. In addition to the food processing industry, the nutmeg oil is also used in the pharmaceutical and perfume industry. In short, the aromas of nutmeg and mace continue to have an intoxicating effect on the palate and they seduce us in every possible way. Annually about twelve thousand tons of nutmeg is produced and about two thousand tons of mace. In conclusion, I still know really well how to manipulate you people and we are both  still reaping the benefits of this century-old partnership!

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nutmeg (British Library)

consulted literature

Armstrong, J.E. & B.A., Drummond, ‘Floral biology of Myristica fragrans Houtt. (Myristicaceae), the Nutmeg of Commerce’, Biotropica, Vol. 18 (1986).

Beekman, E.M., Paradijzen van weleer: Koloniale literatuur uit Nederlands-Indië (1600–1950), Prometheus, Amsterdam (1998).

Clusius, C., Exoticorum libri decem, Pierre Belon, Leiden (1605).

Flach, M., ‘Nutmeg Cultivation and its Sex-Problem’, Mededelingen van de landbouwhogeschool, Wageningen, Vol. 66, No. 1 (1966).

Houttuyn, M., Natuurlyke historie : of, Uitvoerige beschryving der dieren, planten, en mineraalen, 1774.

Lape, P., et al., ‘New Data from an Open Neolithic Site in Eastern Indonesia’, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 57, No. 2 (2018).

Oosterbeek, W., Nootmuskaat: De geschiedenis van een wonderbaarlijk nootje, Athenaeum – Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam (2017).

Peeters, N.G.J., Rumphius’ Kruidboek: Verhalen uit de Ambonese flora, KNNV Uitgeverij, Zeist (2020).

Pollan, M., The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, Random House, Inc., New York (2001).

Rumphius, G.E., Herbarium Amboinense / The Ambonese Herbarium (ingeleid, vertaald en geannoteerd door E.M. Beekman), six volumes, Yale University Press, New Haven (CT) en Londen (2011).

Rumphius, G.E., Het Amboinsche Kruid-boek: Dat is, Beschryving van de meest bekende boomen, heesters, kruiden, land- en water-planten, die men in Amboina, en de omleggende eylanden vind, na haare gedaante, verscheide benamingen, aanqueking, en gebruik: mitsgaders van eenige insecten en gediertens, voor ’t meeste deel met de figuren daar toe behoorende, allen mèt veel moeite en vleit in veel jaaren vergadert, en beschreven in twaalf boeken, 6 volumes, François Changuion, Jan Catuffe, Hermanus Uytwerf (1741–1750). De Nederlandse en Latijnse tekst is ook digitaal te raadplegen via:

Sharma, M.V. & J.E. Armstrong, ‘Pollination of Myristica and other nutmegs in natural populations’, Tropical Conservation Science, Vol. 6, No. 5, pp. 595-607.

Wallace, A.R., ‘On the Pigeons of the Malay Archipelago’, Ibis, Vol. 1 (1865).

Warburg, O., Die Muskatnuss ihre Geschichte, Botanik, Kultur, Handel und Verwerthung sowie ihre Verfälschungen und Surrogate, W. Engelmann, Leipzig (1897).