With their evergreen foliage and conical growth habit, California nutmeg trees (Torreya californica) add year value to landscaping within U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7 to 10. One of their most distinguishing features is that their large, seed-filled fruit, which form at irregular intervals every couple of decades. California nutmeg seeds are edible, although the tree must be positively identified prior to selecting the seeds to avoid accidental poisoning from similar-looking trees.
California nutmeg trees occur naturally in the forest understory, where they gradually reach a rise of approximately 35 feet. They have an airy, conical growth habit with slightly drooping branches lined with glossy, evergreen foliage. Small, inconspicuous flowers appear annually in spring and early summer, though fruit production is quite erratic and unreliable. The immature fruit is pale green with a span of 1/2 around 1 1/2 inches and an ovoid shape reminiscent of the olive. Once ripe, the fruit splits open to reveal one large nut, or seed, inside, which is light brown in colour with a smooth hull.
Patience is a virtue when it comes to harvesting California nutmeg nuts since they take around 2 years to fully ripen. They’re ready for gathering when the fleshy outer layer begins to split, which can occur any time of year but is most likely to happen in autumn. The fruit could be gathered in the ground after it falls or straight from the tree, though fallen fruit may be of inferior quality because of mould growth or insect pests. Pick through the gathered fruit and discard any with obvious signs of damage or spoilage. The rest of the fruit must be husked before the outer hull split to extract the meaty, cream-colored kernel inside.
The California nutmeg tree returns seed kernels which are quite flexible in their usage, but they do require processing to reach their full potential. The kernels have a bitter, unpleasant flavor when raw because of their tannin content. The tannin can be eliminated by roasting or boiling, which are two common modes of preparation. Once the tannin is removed, the seeds taste like peanuts. Raw ingestion is also possible, though it’s less common due to the taste and astringent quality of the flesh. The kernels also have a high oil content and could be pressed to extract the oil to use in cooking or eating raw. Nutmeg spice does not come in the California nutmeg tree. The spice, nutmeg, comes in the nutmeg tree, Myristica fragrans, hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11.
California nutmeg shares many attributes with the yew tree (Taxus spp.) , by which it is distantly related. Yew is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 10, based on the species. The USDA zones of the Western yew (Taxus brevifolia), 4 through 10, also overlap with California nutmeg’s zones. It’s important to be aware of the differences between the 2 species prior to gathering nuts since all parts of the yew tree are lethal if ingested. Both have needle-like foliage, however, the foliage of California nutmegs is sharp while yew tree foliage is soft and elastic. Also, California nutmeg foliage emits a powerful camphor-like smell when crushed, whilst yew trees do not. Probably the clearest difference between both species is that the fruit. California nutmegs have larger fruit reminiscent of a green walnut or olive, whilst yew trees generate a small fruit with a fleshy, bright-red outer coating surrounding one black seed.