A native of South America and of the West Indies, especially of Jamaica, whence the principal supplies of allspice are derived. The Eugenia pimenta is an exceedingly handsome tree, attaining under suitable conditions of climate a height of at least thirty feet - 9 m. It has a smooth trunk with shiny green leaves something like those of the 'Bay'. The foliage is very luxuriant, and as the tree branches equally all round the effect is very handsome, especially in the contrast presented between the profusion of small white flowers and rich green leaves. It affects hilly situations, and will grow on barren land unfit for any other cultivation. Porter instances a fine specimen standing on the ridge of a rock about twenty feet in circumference, and eight feet from the surface of the ground, the roots encompassing the whole surface of the rock, and finding their way down to the soil of which the tree derived its nourishment.
The Pimento is said to be very impatient of all attempts at entirely artificial cultivation where the tree does not grow spontaneously; very few of the efforts made to propagate young plants, and grow them into trees by the ordinary methods of cultivation have been successful. Experience of the tree in Queensland is very limited; the only specimen known to the writer being one on a hillside in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. This tree is some fifteen years old, and about twenty feet high. I cannot learn how long it has been bearing; but last season it yielded a small crop of sound healthy berries - a fact sufficiently encouraging to induce attempts at cultivating such a useful tree.
The following is the principal method of cultivating the Pimento tree in Jamaica: A selection is made of land where the natural vegetation is interspersed with these trees, or in the immediate vicinity of an old plantation. The whole of the other timber and undergrowth is cut down and left to decay, the pimento trees alone being allowed to remain intact; among the ruins of other timber the young pimento plants spring up in profusion where the seed has either fallen or been deposited by birds, the prostate branches of the felled trees affording a valuable protection to the tender plants. In due course they are thinned out, and, when in two years time, the dead timber and rubbish is cleared away, the young trees are free to grow to maturity, and the plantation, thus curiously created, is thenceforth tended in the usual way, the trees arriving at maturity in about seven years.
The Pimento flowers twice, but only bears a regular crop once a year. The fruit is a small berry, somewhat larger than a peppercorn, and containing two seeds, and when ripe is succulent and of black or dark purple colour. The produce is variable in quantity, but a good tree, under favourable conditions of season, will give a hundredweight of the dried spice; the loss in drying being about one-third of the weight of the freshly-gathered berries.
If the berries are left to ripen, they become moist and glutinous, difficult to cure, and not only lose their pungency and delicate aroma, but acquire a different flavour somewhat resembling juniper berries. The fruit is, therefore, gathered while still green, and is either sun-dried on mats or terraced floors, or cured by a more rapid process in kilns. Curing in the sun takes, under favourable circumstances, about seven or eight days. During the process the heaps are frequently turned and winnowed; great care being taken to preserve them from either rain or dew. Drying constitutes the sole process of preparation for market; and when this has been properly done, the article is ready for packing and export. It will happen that some of the ripe berries get mixed with the unripe, but this is avoided as much as possible; and for the reason that, in exact proportion as this occurs, the value of the commodity is injured, the berries are gathered nearly as soon as they are formed, and before they have begun to mature. When sufficiently cured they present a rough exterior and a dark brown colour, and the seeds rattle inside.
The common name 'Allspice' is derived from the idea that Pimento combines the flavour of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper. The aromatic properties of the fruit are contained in a volatile oil, the dissipation of which, as the fruit matures, accounts for the necessity for securing the crop while still green. The aromatic and pungent qualities reside principally in the external skin of the berry, but the same properties, in less degree, are found in every part of the plant. Alcohol extracts the entire virtues of the berry; but the aroma, and some part of the astringent and pungent principles, are extracted by water. The chief use of allspice is in cookery. In medicine, however, it is found in various forms of heavy and light 'oil of pimento', in 'spirit of pimento', and 'pimento water'. Its medicinal properties are very similar to those of cloves, being a warm aromatic stimulant and carminative, relieving flatulency, stimulating and giving tone to the stomach, and promoting digesting. It is also used, in common with some other of the spices, as a cover for medicines of unpleasant flavour, and to prevent the griping of purgatives.
The oil, obtained by distillation with water, when coloured with Alkanet root (Anchusa tinctoria) is commonly sold as oil of cloves, although by no means possessing the full properties of the latter.
Simmonds states that Pimento is also used in tanning, and that a patent has been taken out in Jamaica for employing the leaves as a tanning material; but this is not supported, and, if true, possesses little interest in Queensland, where superior tannin-producing material is so abundant. One other use of the tree remains to be enumerated namely, that of being convertible into good walking-sticks and umbrella-handles.
According to the Scientific American, the umbrella trade threatens the existence of the Pimento plantations of Jamaica. It was shown by an official estimate made at Kingston last autumn, that more than half a million of umbrella-sticks were then awaiting export to England and United States. These sticks were almost without exception, Pimento, and it is not surprising that owners and lessees of Pimento walks are becoming alarmed at the growth of a trade which threatens to uproot in a few years all the young trees. The export returns for the last five years show an average of 2,000 bundles of sticks sent out from Jamaica annually; and the returns for the first three quarters of 1881 show an export of over 4,500 bundles, valued at 15,000 dollars. Each bundle contains from 500 to 800 sticks, each of which represents a young, bearing Pimento tree.
But apart altogether from its commercial value, the Pimento tree is a very desirable addition to our gardens. Even as a shrub it is beautiful for its ornamental, bright foliage, and when planted in a clump, the slightest breeze will fill the air with a delicious perfume exhaled from the leaves. These latter, when bruised, yield an aromatic odour nearly as strong as that of the fruit; and, judiciously used by the cook, and in connection with the domestic medicine chest, may serve many of the purposes of the spice, and render the possessor of a tree, so far as his household is concerned, independent of its fruiting.
Edwards, in the history of the British West Indies, says: "I do not believe there is in all the vegetable creation a tree of greater beauty than a young Pimento. The trees form the most delicious groves that can possibly be imagined, filling the air with fragrance, and giving reality, though in a very distant part of the globe, to our great poet's description of those balmy gales which convey to the delighted voyager:
"Sabean odours from the spicy shore
Of Araby the blest-
Cheered with the grateful smell, old Ocean miles"
The seeds of the Pimento tree are very perishable, and have proved difficult to import; and the number of plants brought to Queensland has been hitherto small. As, however, the seeds borne by the specimen in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens germinate freely, plants will be available henceforth without the risk and trouble of importation.
DATE: November 1995
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