This evergreen tree is indigenous to South America and the West Indies, and it’s grown extensively in Jamaica. Christopher Columbus found it growing on that island in 1494, during his second voyage to the Caribbean. Its wood was once in such demand for the making of walking sticks that the tree was nearly harvested to extinction. The dried berries are used to produce allspice, a common culinary flavoring. The botanical name Pimenta is derived from the Spanish word for pepper because the ripe fruits resemble peppercorns.
Common Names: Allspice, Jamaican Pepper
Description: Slow-growing evergreen tree, up to 40 feet tall; large, leathery leaves; grayish white peeling bark; clusters of small white flowers followed by purple berrylike fruits; aromatic
Hardiness: To Zone 10
Flowering: Early summer
Parts Used: Fruits, seeds, and leaves
Range/Habitat: Native to tropical areas of South America and the West Indies
One of the most popular baking spices, ground allspice adds a sweet, warm flavor to pumpkin pie, banana bread, and cookies. Allspice also contributes a key flavor to barbecue sauce. The whole fruits are used to flavor soup, brine, mulled wine, and cider.
Allspice has been used to treat ailments such as indigestion, flatulence, and muscle pain. It contains the compound eugenol, an anesthetic and antiseptic. In Belize, the berries and leaves are made into a flavorful warming tea to treat upset stomach, gas, and infant colic. To prevent and cure fungal infections of the feet — a frequent consequence of living in tropical rainforest conditions — local people crushed allspice berries into a fine powder and mixed this with animal fat, rubbing the concoction liberally on the affected sites.
Laboratory studies have confirmed that compounds in this plant have antifungal activity. For toothaches, indigenous people chew allspice leaves or berries into a paste and apply it to the sore tooth and surrounding gum. A similar preparation is used externally to ease joint pain: The crushed berries are boiled into a paste, applied to a cloth, and used as a plaster.
How to grow it
Jamaican allspice requires warm, frost-free growing conditions with rich, well-drained soil and full sun. In Zone 9 and colder, grow this small tree in a large container that can be moved indoors for the winter, or grow it in a warm greenhouse. Amend the soil or potting medium with compost. Feed with a tropical plant fertilizer every 3 to 5 weeks, and water during dry periods. The tree should begin fruiting during its third year; harvest berries about 4 months after they form, while they are still green and unripe. When sun-dried, they turn brown and can be used. Propagate by planting fully mature seed.