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Do You Know About the Narcotic Effects of Nutmeg?

Nutmeg, now a common household spice, comes from the tree Myristica fragrans, which originates from the Indonesian Banda Islands (also known as the Spice Islands). The name nutmeg comes from Latin, nux muscat, meaning musky nut. Legend has it that when M. fragrans sets seed, the musky smell of the nutmegs is so overpowering that it causes birds of paradise to fall to the ground (Krieg 1964). This may have more to do with the narcotic properties of nutmeg than with its characteristic scent, but it is this musky quality that has made nutmeg a popular flavoring for both sweet and savory dishes.

While the inhabitants of the Banda Islands apparently made no use of nutmeg as a condiment, it is known to have been used as a spice and medicine in India and the Middle East as early as 700 b.c.e., (Kalbhen 1971), while its therapeutic applications have been recorded by Arab physicians since the seventh century c.e. (Weil 1967). Nutmeg did not appear in Europe until the Middle Ages and reports conflict regarding whether it was introduced by Arab traders or by returning crusaders, although it was probably a little of both. While introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages, nutmeg was likely a rare commodity until the sixteenth century when the Portuguese discovered that the Banda Islands were the hitherto concealed source of nutmeg (Stein et al. 2001).

After this discovery, nutmeg became a major European commodity. Trade was monopolized by the Portuguese and the Dutch, but eventually came under sole control of the Dutch after an extended military campaign in 1621 that left most of the Islands' inhabitants dead. The Dutch ran the Islands like a plantation and mounted regular expeditions to eradicate sources of nutmeg outside of their control. At the height of its value, nutmeg was carried by Europeans as a display of wealth. Nutmeg graters became fashionable accoutrements, and diners would grate their own nutmeg at fancy restaurants. The Dutch continued to dominate the trade in nutmeg until the nineteenth century when the British took temporary control of the Banda Islands during the Napoleonic Wars and were able to break the monopoly by successfully cultivating nutmeg in the West Indies. Nutmeg has subsequently become a major export product in the West Indies and is now featured on the national flag of Grenada.

By the twentieth century, the popularity of nutmeg as a spice subsided and stabilized. Around this time it became rumored that nutmeg was an effective abortifacient. This use offered the West its first glimpses into the narcotic properties of nutmeg, as a number of young women became delirious after using large quantities of nutmeg to induce miscarriages (Kalbhen 1971).

It may have been these turn-of-the-century reports that led to the use of nutmeg in American prisons by the 1940s or earlier. Despite the length of time that nutmeg's properties have been recognized, fairly little is understood about the actions of this mysterious nut. This article is an attempt to compile the existing information about nutmeg into one place and to provide the reader with a more comprehensive understanding of nutmeg and its peculiar properties.


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