It is Yuletide Plants Week on The Quantum Biologist! This week, we’ll take a closer look at three plants that make the Christmas season special — both the fascinating social histories of them, and the biology behind the myth.
Eggnog rarely inspires ambivalence. You either hate it for its freaky thickness, or, if you’re like me, love it for the same reason. Most enjoy it with bourbon, a few swear it is only purified by brandy, and fewer still, again like me, prefer it with rum. But if you are a true eggnog fan, you never pass up a dusting of fresh-grated nutmeg.
Yuletide is the only time of year that most of us ever really sample the mysterious spice called nutmeg. You might apply some to an apple pie, or even a few roasts, but otherwise, nutmeg stays in the cabinet until December like tangled Christmas lights in the attic. It is almost too powerful a flavor for everyday use: pungent and musty, a strange and rough alloy of basil and mahogany. And with a history of war, piracy, drug abuse and riddles behind it, the nutmeg is truly imbued with curses and black magic.
Myristica fragrans is native only to the tiny Banda Islands of Indonesia, part of the Molucca Islands, sometimes referred to as the Spice Islands. The Moluccas are also the birthplace of another holiday spice, cloves, and the nutmeg tree itself gives us two separate spices: Nutmeg is its seed, but its red aril, or false-fruit, becomes Mace, which is mainly famous for being the one spice in the cabinet no one has any freaking clue how to use. (As a child, I assumed you threw it into an attacker’s eyes. Sadly, it is not even that useful.) Because the nutmeg was found in the Bandas and nowhere else — in fact, the islands are literally forested with them, and cuscuses and flying opossums jump through their branches at night — the islands were something of an Eldorado for European spice traders and colonists during the Spice Wars of the Renaissance. Arab traders were the first outsiders to find the Banda Islands and their precious cloves and nutmegs, which they could sell for an arm and a leg in Europe, where the primary native spices at the time were mustard and… mustard. (There is a reason Europe even had wars over spices.)
But the location of the Bandas remained a close secret until Portuguese conqueror Afonso de Albuquerque (no relation to my hometown) captured the Moluccas in 1511 and forced the natives to point him there. But trouble with the native Moluccans forced the Portuguese to abandon the Bandas for almost two decades, allowing that other naval superpower, the Dutch, to slide into the Bandanese ports for trade. This was long before the British sent warships to conquer the island, but only shortly before the Dutch tried to boost the price of nutmeg at home by committing genocide against the Bandanese and enslaving the survivors. The nutmeg forests burned like a smoking censer over a mass grave. And somewhere along the line, Peter Piper got involved.
Surely you know that Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. What you may not know is that “Peter Piper” is the Anglicized version of Pierre Poivre (literally translated “Peter Pepper”), a one-armed French horticulturalist and pirate in the mid-1700’s. Back then, the term “pepper” could be applied to any spice nut, and when shipping precious nutmeg peppers, the Dutch rubbed them with lime so that the seeds could not germinate if they were planted. Since Pierre would raid Dutch stores of spices and plants to furnish his botanical garden in the Seychelles, you could say with some probability that, on at least one occasion, Pierre Poivre stole half a bushel of limed nutmegs.
But enough about the social history. It’s Quantum Biology time! There are two biological issues the nutmeg illustrates: Intoxication and dispersal. Nutmeg is intoxicating in every way; its unique flavor made it highly prized to the Europeans whose temperate climate could never produce the double-rainbow of phytotoxins that make a modern spice cabinet. It takes a stable tropical climate to push biodiversity and evolution to the point where plants created enough phenolic compounds to furnish a good kitchen. Don’t believe me? Check your own spice cabinet. The most powerful ones nearly all originate near or south of the Tropic of Cancer.
One of the alkaloid compounds which gives nutmeg its peculiar appeal, called myristicin, is so intoxicating that it’s actually hallucinogenic. It’s apparently popular in prisons, which is why nutmeg has been banned in many prison kitchens. “Stirred into a glass of cold water, a penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers,” wrote Malcolm X in his autobiography, describing his prison psychedelics. What he doesn’t mention is the brutal headaches, nausea, and convulsions that accompany the relatively short trips. The symptoms of nutmeg abuse sound strangely like those described by toad-lickers. Keep it in mind when you’re going for your fourth mug of eggnog. “Results are vaguely similar to marijuana with side effects of headache and nausea. Death would probably supervene before addiction if such addiction is possible. I have only taken nutmeg once,” said William S. Burroughs in Naked Lunch. Listen to William S. Burroughs. Nutmeg is probably the only narcotic for which he declined a second try.
So nutmeg, potent in flavor and effect, was limited to one handful of small volcanic islands, all within gunshot of each other, in the labyrinth of the South Pacific. How did it end up only there? Myristica as a genus is all over Asia, but no other species achieves the nutmeg’s special powers. The Bandas are geographically remote, and more to the point, the nutmeg isn’t a seafaring nut. Unlike the coconut, which actually requires a long saltwater bath in order to germinate, the nutmeg isn’t a “drift seed;” floating to a nearby island would have the same sterilizing effect as pickling the pepper. I’ve written about waif dispersal in animals before, and for the dioecious nutmeg, which has both male and female trees, the odds of an ordinary species of Myristica arriving and coupling with another of its kind on a wayward volcanic island are probably about the same as that of a small bedraggled mammal floating in on a life raft of loose grasses finding its mate on a desert isle. It’s possible that humans brought a Myristica species from a neighboring island, but unlikely that it was cultivated until it became the modern nutmeg. It must have got there naturally and evolved naturally.
So the nutmeg has to be appreciated as an incredibly unlikely phenomenon. It is as if the ancestral nutmeg, bland and vaguely medicinal, arrived by chance at the windswept volcanoes and became concentrated and intense, like a pool of elixir evaporating in the sun. Solitude gave nutmeg its unique character and its intoxicating influence, and for these, war crimes were committed. Malcolm Little partook of it to escape his literal and mental prison, and eventually became a revolutionary and radical. Pierre Poivre fought the colonial Dutch to bring its essence to his sunny African gardens. And you? You just dust your eggnog with it. After all, for such a small seed, a little goes a long way.