This fast-growing evergreen tree, up to 35 m tall, is related to true nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) which originated from the Indonesian Molucca Islands but is now grown commercially in various parts of the tropics. The fruits of the two species are very similar in general appearance, splitting open when ripe to reveal a glossy brown seed (the nutmeg) inside a red aril – the part which in M. fragrans yields the spice known as mace.In size they differ though, those of the African nutmeg being smaller. They are also no match for true nutmeg and mace in flavor or aroma.
The main importance of African nutmeg is medicinal rather than culinary, and as a source of a bitter, solid yellow vegetable fat which is used for making soap and candles. The seeds are so rich in oil that they can be threaded on wire and burnt as a hanging candle. Medicinal uses are mainly as a mouthwash or gargle for oral hygiene, and in applications for skin diseases and joint problems. The reddish sap which flows freely from slashes in the bark is also used to treat thrush, mouth ulcers, gum disease and bad breath.
African nutmeg trees are common in lowland rainforest In Nigeria, especially in secondary forest where they can become dominant. Characteristically they have a straight trunk, no buttresses and drooping branches on which dense clusters of very small flowers, covered in rust-coloured velvety hairs, can be seen from December to March and again in June. By the time the last flowers are produced, the first fruits are ripe so both can be seen together. Fallen leaves are easy to spot beneath the tree, being elongated, often riddled by insect holes, and up to 30cm long with a prominent midrib and 20 or more pairs of regularly spaced lateral veins that loop and join at the margin.
Confusingly, another African rainforest tree goes under the common of African nutmeg. This is Monodora myristica, a member of the Annonaceae family. It is quite different in appearance and occurs in older forests. The large round fruits reach up to 15cm in diameter and contain numerous aromatic seeds which are prized for their spicy flavour.