Why Growing Nutmeg (Jathikka) Tree is Beneficial?

Nutmeg is a medium-sized tropical tree widely occurring in southern India. Its origin is believed to be in the islands of Indonesia. However, now it is widely grown in other tropical areas of the world including in Asia and the West Indies.

Like pepper, it is an important spice crop of Kerala. Apart from the economic importance, it was widely used as traditional remedies as well. So growing nutmeg trees can be beneficial – be it commercial or not.

Nutmeg - Jathikka in Kerala
A ripened Nutmeg (Jathikka) in Kottayam, Kerala

Quick Facts

Plant Type: Perennial Evergreen Tree
Family: Myristicaceae
Scientific name: Myristica fragrans

Height: 10 to 20 meters
Distribution: Tropics of South India, South East Asia, West Indies

Common Names:
English: Nutmeg Tree
Malayalam: Jathi, Jathikka(the fruit)
Hindi: Jaiphal
Tamil: Jathikkai

General Description & Appearance

Nutmeg tree usually grows erect to a height of around 20 meters. It has branches all around and looks like a cone.

The leaves are 10 cm long with dark green color and smooth surfaces. The canopy is dense.

For nutmeg, there are male and female plants. This implies that the male tree bears male flowers while the female tree bears comparatively bigger female flowers. However, in rare cases, both of these can occur in the same plant also.

The flowers are small and fragrant. They originate from leaf axils. The fruit is light reddish yellow in color and almost the size of a lemon. There is a vertical marking on the fruit. At this marking, the fruit split open after ripening, revealing the red aril and seed inside.

The seed is packed loosely inside a brown shell. The aril is a delicate covering around this shell.

Nutmeg tree
A 10-year old tree

Major geographic distribution in India

In India, Nutmeg is mainly found in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. It grows well in the plains and hills with a warm climate and good rainfall. Apart from Kerala, there are nutmeg cultivations in places adjacent to the Western Ghats like the Nilgiris, Pollachi,  Theni & Konkan region.

Important Uses & Benefits of Nutmeg

The fruit – nutmeg and mace – has both medicinal and culinary uses. However, excess use of nutmeg is said to have side effects too. So the usual recommendation is to use it in very small quantities only.

Medicinal properties

According to Ayurvedic texts, nutmeg and mace are beneficial for curing many stomach-related problems owing to its carminative property. A study has also revealed its anti-diarrhoeal property.

According to researches, nutmeg is also anti-microbial and anti-bacterial. It can also reduce depression and enhance memory.

Moreover, it has been traditionally used in folk medicines like Unani also to improve digestion.

Culinary uses

The outer fleshy part of the fruit is used for preparing pickles. Also, the nut powder is used in small quantities to enhance the aroma and flavor of several dishes.

Nutmeg in the Commodity

Nutmeg is a versatile tree crop that produces two spices. Both the aril and dried nut are commercially valuable in spice markets.

As of writing this (Feb 2019), the indicative commodity price of mace is around INR 700 per kg in Kerala markets (as per newspapers). Although the price is a little less compared to earlier times, it can be still profitable for farmers.

The average price of mace was continuosly decreasing for the past few years in all markets. The average price of dried nutmeg without shell was in the range of INR 500 in 2013 and dropped to the range of INR 300 by 2017. However, it has recovered back to 400s in 2018 & 2019 giving hope.

Major challenges

  • Male or Female Plants: The male nutmeg trees do not produce many fruits. So planting from seedlings may not guarantee good result as fifty percent of the plants will be male.
    Solution: Using commercially grafted material is generally recommended to avoid this issue.
  • Diseases caused by blights, Diplodia etc.
  • Price fluctuations
  • Extreme climates like drought
  • Processing & drying is difficult in places like Kerala during the rainy season. Drying facilities are necessary to combat this. Otherwise, the produce gets affected by fungal infections which increase the aflatoxin content. High aflatoxin content reduces the demand in markets.

Best Nutmeg Varieties

If you are planning to cultivate Nutmeg commercially, then getting planting materials of one of the high yielding varieties will be better. If you select seeds from a random tree of unknown variety in your household, you may or may not get a good yield. Fortunately, there are a couple of varieties developed after research which can provide a predictable yield. The main varieties available today which I found worthy of consideration are:

  • Viswasree & Keralasree Nutmegs, developed in 2001 by the Indian Institute of Spices Research (IISR)
  • Keralasree (IISR) – a newer variety developed in 2013 which is better than Viswasree with thick arils.
  • Kochukudy Nutmeg: This is another high yielding variety developed by Mr. George Mathew. Now they have a nursery near Muvattupuzha in Kerala run by Mr. Jose Mathew. According to their website, this variety yields two times the yield of normal varieties.

Also, inquire at the nearest agriculture office in your area for more details.

Methods of Propagation

Naturally, Nutmeg propagates from seeds formed by cross-pollination. This is why two trees can vary greatly in terms of yield potential and quality.

Apart from that, several spice nurseries are now providing plants propagated by techniques called patch budding and grafting.

Epicotyl grafting is a method for raising commercial quality plants. In this method, good scions from high yielding female plants are grafted to the top of selected rootstocks.

How to Plant Nutmeg Tree

Usually, one-year-old grafts are used for commercial planting. Nutmeg tree’s canopy spread nearly 5 meters when fully grown. So it is usually recommended to plant these in the field leaving more than 5 meters (8 to 10 meters is optimum) of space in between. For this, dig small pits with 75cm depth, width, and length. Then fill it with sand, cow-dung powder, and manure before planting the saplings.

Remember to water regularly during the dry season and to provide shade from heavy sunlight.

Best Season & Suitable Climate for cultivation

As with any other agricultural crops of tropical areas, the period starting from the rainy season is the best time to plant Nutmeg. This ensures ample water supply during the initial stages of growth.

Places with 1500 millimeters of annual rainfall are preferable. The tree may not grow well in very cold or freezing climates.

So in Kerala, the months of June, July and August are best for planting. Also, remember to choose a place away from intense sunlight. The tree prefers to grow in shades. It often thrives under the shade of bigger trees like Jackfruit.

In short, these are the preferred  conditions:

  • Good rainfall
  • Grows in shade also
  • Warm climate, but needs protection from intense sunlight
  • Planting: During or just after the rainy season
  • Excess humidity & water-logging may be adverse

Harvesting & Processing

Normal varieties give three harvests in a year. Harvesting is the main process in nutmeg cultivation which requires good effort. The fruits become ready to harvest once they ripen and split open. Then these need to be carefully plucked by hand before they fall on the ground. If it touches the soil, it may become useless, especially the mace.

Fruits growing on a nutmeg tree - Jathikka
Fruits growing on a tree

Processing involves careful drying of the produce. First of all, remove the outer fleshy part. Then carefully detach the mace from the shell. Traditionally, in Kerala, nutmeg is dried under the Sun. However, this may not be the best method in case of heavy rainfall and high humidity.

Dried mace acquires a yellowish brown color and ready for the market. Dried nutmegs are sold with or without the shell.  

What are the expected yields?

According to IISR, you can expect to yield around 1250 kilogram of dry nuts per acre from the 8th year after planting.

Nutmeg vs Rubber?

If you live in an area with rubber plantations, you might also be thinking of this. So for curiosity’s sake, I did some quick calculations to get a rough estimate based on my own experiences and facts.

Note: These calculations are based on my understandings only. It is not definitive and can vary greatly depending on numerous factors. There are people who know about it better than me.

Nutmeg: If things go as expected, Nutmeg gives a yield of 1250kg of dried nuts with shell per acre of land per year starting from the 8th year.  Suppose the price is INR 250 per kg.

That is, after one year => 1250kg/acre * 250 = 312500 ~ 3 Lacs

Now add the yield of mace => 192kg/acre * 500 = 96000 ~ 1 Lac

So total is around ~4 Lacs INR from 1 Acre of land.

Rubber: A rubber tree becomes ready for tapping after 6 years from planting and starts giving a respectable yield from the 8th or 9th year onwards. Suppose you have 150 trees per acre yielding 300ml latex per tree per day (these are the averages based on my experience).

That is, 150 * 300ml = 45000ml = 45 litres/acre/year
Suppose you get 120 tapping days (reducing leaf fall period & heavy rains) => 120 * 45 = 5400 litres/acre/year
5400 liters of latex => 2160kg of smoked sheets (assume 2l/sheet & 0.8kg/sheet).

So if the price is 120/kg, it gives ~2.6 Lacs INR from one acre. However, I didn’t take into account the expenses including tapping charges which again reduces the profit.

So, at first sight, nutmeg seems more profitable. However, cultivating nutmeg as a mixed crop (with coconut, coffee etc) might be safer considering the price fluctuations. Also, rubber has been a source of income for many. So, should I/you replace it? I think no one will be able to give a definitive answer.

Conclusion

Since nutmeg does not require much efforts after the initial stage, it is comparatively easy to grow and continue to produce fruits for decades. It works best in intercropping than monocropping.

Also, scientific researches are also backing up the traditional uses of this spice in areas of health care.

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