This season’s eatings were likely to include a sprinkling of nutmeg. Though the gifts have been opened and the holiday meal consumed, the scent of nutmeg might still be lingering. It is a must-have ingredient for both savory and sweet holiday staples.

Nutmeg is botanically and historically of interest, and is not the only seasoning that comes from the evergreen tree scientifically known as Myristica fragrans. Nutmeg is the seed of this plant. The seed’s shell is in encased in a reddish covering, called an aril, which is removed and dried and known as another spice, mace. The most well-known (and delicious) aril might be the one that surrounds a pomegranate seed.

Mysristica fragrans is commonly called the nutmeg tree, perhaps because nutmeg had a better marketing department than mace. More likely, it was simply more valued.

Nutmeg has been the cause of violence and war and upheaval in the country of its origin. The nutmeg tree is native to the Moluccas, or Spice Islands of Indonesia, which at one time in history was the only location this tree grew.

During Roman times, naturalist Pliny references nutmeg as the plant that bears nuts with two flavors. Emperor Henry VI used this plant’s fragrance to fumigate the streets of Rome before his coronation. Arab merchants brought nutmeg to Constantinople and its popularity spread.

Nutmeg’s value continued to increase, and eventually Europeans invaded the Spice Islands to get control of the lucrative market. In the 1600’s, the Dutch waged a spice war and slaughtered 15,000 Banda Island natives, leaving only a thousand survivors. Money was the motivation and there was lots to be made when only a half kilo of nutmeg cost as much as three sheep or one cow.

In Giles Milton’s book Nathanial’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of History, the author notes its money-making potential: “In the Banda Islands, ten pounds of nutmeg cost less than one English penny. In London, that same spice sold for more than £2.10s. — a mark-up of a staggering 60,000 per cent. A small sackful was enough to set a man up for life, buying him a gabled dwelling in Holborn and a servant to attend to his needs.”

Known not only for its fragrance and flavor, nutmeg was believed to have some medicinal and psychotropic values. During the Elizabethan times, nutmeg was employed to ward off the Black Plague. In 12th century Europe and into the Middle Ages, nutmeg served as medicine to bring on menstruation and as an abortifacient and was reputed to have hallucinogenic qualities.

The latter reputation still lingers. Malcolm X reported purchasing and using powdered nutmeg in a Massachusetts prison and explained that it had “the kick of three or four reefers.” And teenagers have been known to try to use it to get high, but beware it is more likely to make you sick. Large doses of nutmeg can be dangerous and euphoria is not assured. Studies show that nutmeg in excess can cause nausea, dizziness, dry mouth and slow-down of brain function, with researchers describing it as a two-day hangover or feeling like being mentally encased in mud. Not appealing and not safe, so do not try it.

Like these rumors, over the history of the plant, the seeds also spread, mostly through human intervention. Today, though 75 per cent of nutmeg still comes from Indonesia, Grenada has become second in production at 20 per cent and the rest hails from other tropical areas.

It even got a foothold and permanent name in nearby Connecticut, known as the Nutmeg State. Yankee peddlers made and sold wooden ‘nutmeg’ seeds to fool unsuspecting buyers. Nutmeg is no longer a trick, but only a treat for those that employ this ages-old delicacy.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.