The Secret of the Wandering Nutmeg

Here’s the story, of a lovely lady, who is hiking in the blue hills to stay sane. And she found a strange brown nut, in the forest, she did not know its name.

OK, so I’m no Florence Henderson, but I did find a nut and even as I bent close to it I could smell its fragrance. I’m not in the habit of smelling things, but I immediately put it close to my nose, and it was spicy. Nutmeg, said my brain. I searched around for others, but could only see 2. I looked up into the de-leafed trees around me, but since I have never seen a nutmeg tree, I had no idea what I was looking for. And since I haven’t yet fulfilled my dream of being able to identify trees only by their bark, I couldn’t even rule out any trees.

I put my treasure in my pocket and finished my hike feeling very pleased with myself. When I got home, I started Googling nutmeg pictures.

These are what I found in the forest.

These are nutmegs, courtesy of Google.

Yes! A match!

By then the spicy fragrance had disappeared, but you could still smell it if you scratched the nut part. Nature’s Scratch n Sniff, if you will. Next step, find picture of the tree. I couldn’t wait to go back and be able to identify it on my next hike.

I find pictures but keep reading and it says the tree is tropical. OK, I guess that makes sense, given all those documentaries about the spice trade, and the spice routes, and spices were like currency. Obviously nutmeg wasn’t grown here, but surely there is a hybrid of sorts that adapted to New England? I dive deeper and, nope. Nutmeg is a tropical tree that only grows in zones a 10 to 11 and likes it hot. I live in zone 6b and 7a, so, yeah, even the word girl like me knows that the numbers don’t add up.

A smart friend suggested I Google what looks like nutmeg. Good idea, except all I get are nutmeg substitutes and then sites about why Connecticut is called the “nutmeg state.” Spoiler alert — it’s not because they grow nutmeg. Like any good legend the “why” depends on who you ask.

Curiouser and curiouser. I’m now fairly convinced I have discovered some unique tree — some nutmeg tree that beat the odds. I found the nuts near the Blue Hill Observatory, which made its first weather recording in 1885. So maybe it was an old tree from an experiment. You know, I think I read in a book a few years ago that in the 1800s all those old white guys were into growing trees and grafting things. And what about Frederick Olmsted making all those parks in Boston? We were like Tree Central back then — maybe someone figured out how to grow nutmeg and forgot about it.

Since the internet has failed me, I called in the big guns — the president of the Friends of the Blue Hills, Judy Jacobs. I wrote her a note about my nutmeg and how it shouldn’t be there, but what does she think? Bless her, she responded enthusiastically — how intriguing and did I have a picture? She also she said she could ask the local naturalist, and oh by the way, could it be hickory? And she sends along this picture.

Cue a perky, happy wagging dog tail going limp. Hickory! Dang if it’s a dead ringer for nutmeg. Google! Why didn’t you tell me?

All I had to do to confirm, was crack one open, which I did.

And there, my friends, is the evidence of my denial nestled in its nutty little pockets, kind of like my sneaky brain. So the only mystery that remains is this: Why didn’t I just crack one open when I got home to see what was in it? My first thought was because I wanted to preserve them in case they were rare.

What a bunch of truth dodging nonsense. Try again, dear.

The real reason was I wanted to preserve my little fantasy. Unconsciously, of course. Once I found a picture of the nutmeg to match my desire that I had found one, I stopped looking for corroborative evidence. Oh, and then I outright dismissed the zone 10 thing. It’ not even close to zone 7a — get a grip, lady! Like zone 8, maaaaaybe. When I realized how deflated I felt about finding “only” a hickory nut, that’s when I knew I had invested a fair amount of energy into the make-believe secret of the wandering nutmeg. Just like investing energy into believing that the United States is fair to people of color, or that white privilege doesn’t exist, or that if I breached the safety protocols for COVID just once to have a bunch of friends over to my house, nothing bad will happen.

Right, and if you believe that, I have some wooden nutmeg to sell ya.

But what about the hickory nuts? Just because they actually do grow in our zone, why shouldn’t I be just as excited to have found them? Clearly I’ve never seen, smelled, or found them before, so this is a very exciting personal discovery I made. So what if it’s not a significant, world-changing horticulturally fantastic discovery. This is 2020. Nothing is going to be fantastic.

What was I expecting? I was expecting what I found online to match what I thought was in my hand, and when it didn’t, my devious and deceptive little mind began jamming the puzzle pieces into spaces they were not made for, but oh, were they soooooo close.

When I sheepishly confessed to the president that she was right, she continued to be delightful and congratulated me for solving my own mystery and was glad I was exploring the Blue Hills.

So, here’s to Judy, the Blue Hills, and to more research about hickory, a really cool, very fragrant nut that actually does grow in New England.


  1. Love this. You brought it all together – nature, mystery, politics! Now if you can just tell me what Hickory Dickory Dock means.

  2. One of my favorites. An essay with It All. Including how and why we attach to things and ideas in our human way. But you are right; finding hickory for the first time and doing your detective work is a wonderful experience! This is why my friend who works for Audubon gets justly excited for me when I report having seen my first [insert common New England bird HERE]. Now I want to know about hickory. I told you, whatever the answer was, it would not be a boring one. And it was not!

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