Wood Anecdote

Custard and eggnog would taste pretty bland without the tangy spice we know as nutmeg. But if the Dutch had had their way centuries ago, these tasty treats would have to go it alone.

Nutmeg is the ground seed of a tall and handsome tree called darah darah (Myristica fragrans). Until the late 1700s, the species grew only in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, now part of Indonesia. It was from there that the surviving ship of Ferdinand Magellan's fleet returned to Spain in 1521. Most of the crew had starved, but the ship's hold was laden with spices, especially nutmeg, destined for the wealthy.

When Portugal wrested control of the Moluccas, its merchants distributed false maps so that spice traders from other countries would smash on the coral shoals. Eventually, the Dutch claimed the islands from the Portuguese, and they cut down the darah darah trees on every island they couldn't defend. Carrying nutmeg seeds without authority even became punishable by death.

The Dutch hold on nutmeg lasted until the late 1700s, when the French planted smuggled seeds at their island colony of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. When the British seized the Moluccas in 1796 and spirited away nutmeg seeds to Grenada in the West Indies, the spice war ended.

Today, only the Moluccas and Grenada produce nutmeg. Because only the female trees bear fruit, growers harvest all males except a pollinating few. The easily worked, walnut-like wood becomes house framing, furniture, and millwork. But unlike globe-trotting nutmeg, darah darah wood remains mostly at home.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson