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Myrtaceae, Pimenta dioca, Allspice, Pimento

January 9, 2010

Allspice is a highly aromatic berry of the pimento tree, one of three major spice crops grown commercially in the Western hemisphere (the other two are capsicums and vanilla). Attempts have been made to establish commercial plantations of Allspice in the East, however, for whatever reasons, the endeavor has since been virtually abandoned, aside from a few plantations in southern India and Indonesia.

The tree is a tropical evergreen of the myrtle family, with such relatives as Jaboticaba, Guava, and Suriname Cherry, among many others. The allspice tree can grow 30 feet high. Female trees commence bearing fruit when seven or eight years old, reaching full bearing capacity at fifteen years. The average annual yield is around 150 pounds of berries per tree. The nearly ripe berries are harvested in June using a long pole with a cutter on one end. Berries are then either sun or kiln-dried, turning from green to a dull reddish-brown.

Early eighteenth century botanist Patrick Browne describes Jamaican Pimento plantations, called Pimento Walks: “Nothing can be more delicious then the odour of these walks, when the trees are in bloom, as well as at other times; the friction of the leaves and small branches even in a gentle breeze diffusing a most exhilarating scent.”

The Latin name pimenta originated when early Spanish explorers mistook Allspice for a kind of pepper. Pimenta comes from a medieval word pigmentum, meaning spicery. The tree was also known as Pimenta de Chapa, and Pimenta de Tabasco. Botanist John Ray of Black Notley, Essex, described it in 1693 as allspice, because of its mixture of aromas. The French called allspice quatre épices (four spices) because of the flavor, which seems to combine cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. Jamaica pepper is also one of its common names, as the island of Jamaica produces most of the world’s supply of allspice berries.

From ancient times allspice has been considered a cure-all. The leaves and berries of the tree have found themselves in pharmacopoeias for thousands of years. It was principally used as an aromatic stimulant and carminative, good for flatulence, indigestion and hysterical paroxyms. Aqua pimentae was an ingredient in stomach and purgative medicines, and also played a role in the treatment of rheumatism and neuralgia. The powdered berries have been used for dyspepsia and also to disguise the taste of disagreeable medicines.

Jamaicans have long believed allspice to be an aphrodisiac. A rose will presented to ones lover with allspice berries implanted in it, or a tea made from allspice berries and orange peel is prepared.

Allspice is one of the principal pickling spices, characteristically used in marinating fish. Interestingly, Scandinavians are the largest per capita consumers of allspice. The ground berry is an important ingredient of mixed spice, used to flavor ketchup and soups, salamis, sausages, and such.

Allspice wood was once used for the manufacture of umbrella handles and walking sticks, the likes of which were highly fashionable at the end of the nineteenth century in Britain and then United States.

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