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Nutmeg and Mace
Eggnog, melon slices, and morning oatmeal are just a few things made better with nutmeg and you just might be able to grow your own.
If you live in USDA Hardiness Zones 10–11 or have a greenhouse, you can grow nutmeg. If you can’t grow your own, it’s still a fascinating plant.
Nutmeg tree description
The nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) is native to Asia and the western Pacific. It is an evergreen that can grow 50 feet tall or more. Leaves are dark green and can be two to six inches long. They look similar to magnolia leaves. Pale yellow, bell-shaped flowers grow in loose clusters.
Nutmeg tree flowers
Similar to avocado trees, nutmeg trees change their gender. Instead of altering flower gender within a single day, nutmeg trees mostly begin as male. As they get older, they may turn female. You’ll probably need more than one tree to get a crop unless you can find a self-pollinating variety.
Male flowers tend to have one to ten flowers on short stems, while female flowers grow in groups of one to three on slightly longer stems. In some cases, female flowers do not have petals. Nocturnal beetles are responsible for most nutmeg flowers pollination.
Nutmeg fruits can be oval or pear-shaped. They are two inches long, smooth, and yellow. As the fruit ripens, it splits in half, exposing a shiny red coating called the aril that creates a web around the seed. The aril from nutmeg trees is what we call mace. I was surprised to learn that nutmeg fruit is also edible, though I have read that it tastes nothing like the nutmeg spice.
How to grow nutmeg
You can grow nutmeg from seed or start with a seedling. If you get an untreated nutmeg fruit for growing, place it in a paper bag and put it in the refrigerator for up to 45 days. Stratification of the seed in cold triggers hormonal changes that help the plant grow properly. Soak the seed in water for 24 hours prior to planting. Then plant the seed one inch deep in loose, nutrient-rich soil. Keep the soil warm and moist. You should have a nutmeg sprout in six to eight weeks.
Nutmeg can be grown in a large container (10 gallons is ideal). If you put nutmeg trees in the ground and have more than one, space them 30 to 40 feet apart.
Nutmeg trees prefer hot, wet weather, neutral soil, and good drainage. You’ll need to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Dry soil and nutmeg trees don’t mix. Two inches of water each week is a good standard for these trees. And mulching around your nutmeg tree (but not touching the bark) will help retain moisture and stabilize temperatures.
Top dressing around your nutmeg tree with composted manure will provide many important nutrients. You can also use a standard fertilizer or fish emulsion.
Nutmeg trees grow best in dappled shade with four to six hours of direct sunlight and 77–86°F temperatures.
Nutmeg tree problems
Once established, nutmeg trees have few problems. Holes in seeds indicate cocoa weevils are present. Anthracnose leaf spot and thread blight are the two most common diseases. You can use a Bordeaux mixture or fixed copper to prevent both.
Many people have used nutmeg and mace from the grocery store, dried, ground, and bottled. Like many other edibles, homegrown or simply freshly grated, nutmeg and mace add new layers of taste and fragrance to your baking.
When I first saw star anise, I assumed it was a seed. I was wrong.
The brittle black stars that smell akin to licorice and bring a rich sweetness to many Chinese dishes and Vietnamese pho are the dried fruits or pericarps of an evergreen tree that you can grow at home.
Star anise (Illicium verum) gets its name from the Latin words for true seduction. If you’ve ever experienced the lush, potent fragrance of star anise, you know how well this name fits.
How is star anise used?
While star anise tastes similar to anise, they are not related. Star anise is the primary ingredient in five spice powder, with cinnamon, cloves, fennel, and Sichuan peppercorns. Added to baked goods, herbal teas, mulled wine, poached fruit, and savory dishes, star anise brings depth and complexity. And the plant is quite lovely.
The star anise plant
Star anise trees grow fast. They can reach a height of 26 feet with a 10-foot spread, but are often kept much smaller by pruning.
The leaves are lance-shaped and fragrant but not used in cooking, and the flowers are pink or dark red.
The fruit is star-shaped and green until it ripens. Ripe star anise fruit is brown and woody. Each of the spikes of a star anise fruit is a carpel that contains a single seed
How to grow star anise
These plants are native to southwest China and Vietnam and prefer warm temperatures and dappled sun (think lower in the jungle canopy). They can be grown outdoors year-round in USDA Hardiness Zones 7–9. If you live in a cooler region, give your star anise full sun and protect it from wind and frost. One way to do this is to grow it in a large, wheeled container. Simply bring it indoors each winter.
The easiest way to grow star anise is by buying a certified disease-free sapling from a nursery. But don’t confuse these delectable spices with Japanese anise (Illicium anisatum) or swamp star anise (I. parviflorum) because those plants are toxic. And remember to place your new tree into quarantine to prevent bringing new problems into your landscape.
If grown from seed, it will take six years before you get a crop. You can also grow star anise from a branch cutting. These trees prefer loamy, slightly acidic soil (pH 6.0–7.5) and constant moisture. Your star anise tree will grow best with one inch of water each week, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings.
Top dressings of aged manure or compost can ensure your star anise gets the proper nutrients in spring and summer. Do not feed your tree in autumn or winter.
You can also grow star anise as a hedge, but it will require regular pruning because of how quickly it grows. Pruning star anise generates amazing smells!
Unripe fruits are harvested and left to dry. They can be stored for years in an airtight container.
Problems associated with star anise
Because of the oils that make star anise so fragrant, insect pests are not a problem for this tree. Alternaria blight and downy mildew, however, can cause problems. Use neem oil or fixed copper to prevent these problems.
Did you know that star anise used to be used to make Tamiflu? I didn’t, either.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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