SCIENTIFIC NAME: Pimenta officinalis, Pimenta dioica Lam
FAMILY: Myrtaceae

Allspice, usually known as pimento outside the USA is the dried unripe berry of the tree Pimenta dioica (formerly called Pimenta officinalis) and is a native of the West Indies and Latin America.

It bears its name because of its flavour which resembles a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It is a member of the Myrtle family, growing about 35 feet tall. Its grey bark smells good; its dark green leaves smell good (from the glandular dots on the. underside) and its greeny-white flowers are almost overpowering. So any encounters with the tree in the garden are very aromatic, pungent and pleasant.

The flowers produce a succulent berry that ripens from green to dark purple and contains two pea-sized seeds. The allspice seeds are the dried, unripe, but full-grown aromatic fruits which are harvested 3-4 months after flowering.

Seventy percent of the oil extracted from these seeds is eugenol, which is the same oil found in cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. It is this oil which gives the distinctive flavouring to Chartreuse and other liqueurs which, from centuries ago, have been made in European monasteries.

Allspice is grown principally in the limestone hills in the southwestern part of Jamaica at elevations of less than 1500 feet. Attempts were made to grow it in places like Java and Sumatra but the trees failed to produce fruit so it is basically a Western hemisphere plant and Jamaica continues to produce the world's greatest supply of allspice.

It should not be confused with another closely related member of the myrtle family indigenous to the West Indies, Pimenta acris KosteL, the leaves of which are distilled to produce an oil which, combined with alcohol and water, forms the cosmetic lotion Bay rum.

When the Spaniards first came across the allspice tree in Mexico they named it Piper Tabasci. Because the allspice berries resembled peppercorns in shape and flavour, the name pimiento (pepper) was given them by the Spaniards, a name which was latter corrupted and anglicized into pimento. From the 17th to the 19th century, allspice berries were used to preserve meat on long sea voyages. Nowadays Scandinavians still use them to preserve fish for the coastal markets of Norway, Finland and Sweden. At the end of the 19th century pimento was used to make umbrella sticks and this led to the wanton cutting of allspice saplings until strict legislation saved the young Jamaican trees from this passing vogue.

Pimento is usually grown from seed, preferably from fresh ripe fruit selected from well-developed clusters of regularly fruiting trees. The seeds are extracted by squeezing them with the fingers from their pulpy covering before planting. They must then be planted immediately to Obtain a high percentage of germination which commences in about two weeks and continues for several months. The seedlings may be transplanted into plastic pots 'and grown in humid, shady situations. About one year after germination the seedlings should be 10-18 inches high and ready for planting out.

In a mature grove of allspice, there are two kinds of fruiting trees - those called female and the non-fruiting trees called male. Evidence is conflicting because sometimes the male trees bear small quantities of fruit. The fruitful and unfruitful are so similar in appearance that which trees are fertile usually cannot be determined until after flowering - usually from five to six years in the field. In Jamaica strict supervision is given to the harvesting. To avoid loss of aroma, the pimento berries are hand picked before they are fully ripe. After being dried for from 7 to 10 days in the sun, they are given a preliminary cleaning by the growers, and then shipped to the Government Pimento Cleaning House for a final cleaning before being packed for export. Copper fungicidal sprays are used occasionally in Jamaica to handle a leaf disease known as Pimento Rust., but spraying is stopped two months before the harvest.

Allspice berries are sold both whole and ground. The whole berries are reserved for meat broths, gravies and pickling liquids. Ground allspice is delicious in fruit desserts, fruitcakes, pies, relishes, sausages and preserves.

The following is a quote from Mrs Grieve: "It is a herb under the domination of Venus. It helps old ulcers, hot inflammations and burnings by common fire. For these uses the best way is to make it into an ointment. If you make a vinegar of it it helps leprosy, yellow jaundice, the spleen, gravel in the kidneys. Discorides saith 'It helps such as are bitten by venomous beasts, whether it be taken inwardly or applied to the wound. Nay, he saith further that if any that hath newly eaten it do spit into the mouth of a serpent, the serpent instantly dies. It also kills worms and is as gallant a remedy to drive out the smallpox and measles as any. An ointment made of it is excellent for green wounds.'"

DATE: November 2000

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