How to Grow and Care for the Nutmeg Tree

View of the foliage and fruit of the nutmeg tree.

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In This Article

For most of us, nutmeg is associated with the aroma that permeates the air during chilly weather and helps flavor our favorite fall meals and drinks. The reality of this aromatic tree, though, is far from the typical North American autumn.  

The nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) is a tropical evergreen native to the balmy and very un-autumn-like Spice Islands in the South Pacific. The tree is the source of not just one spice but two: nutmeg from its seed, and mace from the aril of the seed. Luckily, if you live in zones 10 or 11 in the United States, you can grow your own (or, if you're impatient, head to the grocery store while you wait for yours to grow).

Botanical Name Myristica fragrans
Common Name Nutmeg Tree
Plant Type  Evergreen tree
Mature Size 20-60 ft. tall
Sun Exposure Full Sun to Partial Shade
Soil Type Rich, medium textured, well-draining
Soil pH 5.5-7
Bloom Time Late Spring
Flower Color Pale yellow
Hardiness Zones USDA zones 10-11
Native Area  Spice Islands, South Pacific

Nutmeg Tree Care

The nutmeg tree only grows in tropical climates, thus significantly limiting its range in the United States. While it is a beautiful tree with pretty yellow blossoms and the spices it produces are amazing, you are better off just hitting the grocery store if you don’t live in its preferred climate.

Another difficulty may be finding a source. Specialty nurseries that deal specifically in tropicals or edible landscaping may be an excellent place to check, and for that, you might have to look online.  One valuable source for plants that a lot of folks overlook is gardening groups on social media. You never know what rare plants you might find from other local gardeners in your area.

If you love cooking, live in the goldilocks zone, and can find one to purchase, it's worth growing a nutmeg tree. It is an expensive spice, makes terrific gifts, smells lovely, is a unique tree that most people won’t have, and once planted, is easy to tend to and simple to grow. The only real downside is the fruit tends to drop if not picked, causing a mess.  

Light

Be sure to plant your tree in a sunny area that receives some shade throughout the day.  It will
tolerate full sun, but it will thrive in a location that receives morning sun and afternoon shade.

Soil

Your nutmeg tree is not very difficult to grow, but you may find it a little fussy when it comes to its soil. If possible, choose a location rich in organic material with a medium body that the tree’s roots can travel through easily while also providing good drainage.  If you are unsure of the soil type, you can always do some easy soil tests before planting your tree. This will tell you if your soil is suitable or if you will need to amend it. Ideally, the pH will be 5.5 to 7.0 but don’t worry if your soil does not fall in this range; you can always raise or lower the pH of your soil.

Water

To keep your tree happy, the soil needs to be kept moist with regular watering, but they do not like standing water. Use the standard rule of 10 gallons of water for each inch of the tree's diameter.  Nutmeg's native environment is damp and moist, so providing it with a home that reminds it of that is a great way to grow your tree successfully. An easy way to help keep your tree from drying out is by giving it a layer of mulch at its base. Two to three inches of organic mulch that encircles the tree out to the dripline without touching the trunk will help the tree retain moisture longer.

Temperature and Humidity

The nutmeg is native to the rain forests of the South Pacific's East Indies. This area is hot and humid. It needs these conditions to thrive and survive and because of this will only do well in a very tiny swatch of land in the United States. Nutmeg's perfect temperature is between  77°F and 86°F, making USDA zones 10-11 perfect for this tropical evergreen.

Fertilizer

If you have provided your tree with good soil to grow in, you most likely will not need to fertilize the nutmeg tree, but without knowing your soil quality, you have no real way of knowing this. This is why testing your soil is a great idea—it lets you know not just what amendments it needs but also if it needs further fertilizer.

Pruning

You will not need to initially prune your tree too much other than a few structural cuts here and there to eliminate branches growing inward. You always want Y-shaped branches, never branches that can make an X.

After a few seasons, it will develop a broad, round shape that is somewhat low to the ground. You may want to give yourself some room under the canopy by lifting the crown.

What Is Lifting the Crown?

Lifting the crown means to remove lower branches to lift the height of the tree's canopy. It's done to increase the clearance between the ground and the lower branches to allow for pedestrians, prepare for future pruning, or allow for the easier harvesting of fruit.

If you prefer a more formal look, you will want to prune it as it grows larger to maintain the nutmeg tree's rounded shape; it will start to spread and get unruly looking as it ages. When pruning requires ladders, you should make a call to hire a certified arborist; you want to be safe.