The Nuances of Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans Houtt.)
Posted on March 31, 2021 0
The Nuances of Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans Houtt.)
By: Sharon Falsetto, BA (Hons), NAHA Certified Professional Aromatherapist®
As a familiar ingredient of pumpkin-spice lattes and seasonal pumpkin pies, nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) has a bit of a perceived reputation as a “fun spice!” Yet, therapeutically, and aromatically, there are a lot more in-depth nuances to this well-loved winter spice.
Nutmeg has traditionally been used for digestive complaints and pain. As an essential oil, nutmeg lends warmth to a perfume blend with cooling citrus notes, such as lime (Citrus aurantifolia) and pink grapefruit (Citrus × paradisi), combining the sweetness of all the ingredients. As a tropical native, nutmeg is not well used by western herbalists but it does have some redeeming properties as a plant which might encourage you to grow it in your garden if you are well placed to do so.
Nutmeg doesn’t come without cautions for use in aromatherapy, so make sure you are familiar with this unconventional spice before using it.
Aromatherapy Latin: fragrans (pronounced FRAY-granz) means fragrant.[¹]
Botanical Name: Myristica fragrans Houtt.
Synonyms: Myristica officinalis Mart., Myristica aromatica Lam., Myristica moschata Thunb., myristica.
Botanical Family: Myristicaceae (Nutmeg).
Plant Zones: ,  (perennial in tropical climes).
The Difference Between Nutmeg and Mace
Nutmeg and mace are extracted from the same tree – but they are not the same and should not be used interchangeably. In simple terms, nutmeg is the actual kernel (seed) of the tree. A hard casing envelopes the kernel (loosely termed an arillus or aril in this instance as it’s not a true arillus or aril in the botanical sense) and the fleshy appendage of this surround is called mace. Once dried, the arillus or aril is used to extract mace oil. The dried kernel produces nutmeg essential oil through distillation.
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) is an evergreen, tropical tree with fruits comparable to apricot (Prunus armeniaca L.) or peach (Prunus persica L.). Although not familiar as a plant to many of us in the western hemisphere, it is a familiar sight to those residing in tropical countries with a suitable climate for growing it. The tree may live up to eighty years in some instances.
- Overall Appearance: A tall, evergreen tree which reaches heights of sixty-five feet, according to Lawless, but perhaps only heights of fifty feet, according to the National Parks Flora and Fauna website.8 This may well indicate a difference in location, as nutmeg grows in various countries.
- Leaves: The leaves are fragrant if crushed, alternate, ovate, smooth, glossy, narrow to a slender point at the base, and are dark green in color.
- Flowers: The flowers are dioecious; male and female flowers are very similar in shape and color with minimal differences. They are yellow, small and rise from the leaf base. The flowers are also fragrant.
- Fruit: The fruit of the nutmeg tree is a pendulous drupe. The inside of the drupe is two-part: The smooth, brown seed of nutmeg, and the crimson-red aril of mace. However, it is eight years before a nutmeg tree will fruit and twenty-five years before it truly blossoms.
- Essential Oil and CO2 Extract: Nutmeg essential oil is extracted by steam or water distillation from the dried kernel. A CO2 extract of nutmeg is also available using the standard carbon dioxide method of extraction. The chemical composition of each is discussed under the Chemistry section of this article.
All sources researched cite nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) as a native of the Molucca islands in Indonesia. Battaglia expands on that as specifically the Banda and Amboina islands in the Molucca archipelago. He continues that nutmeg is today cultivated in Sri Lanka, Grenada, and Indonesia for commercial use.
Peace Rhind mentions that there are actually two “types” of nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) essential oil, depending on where the extraction was made. Plants in Grenada produce a “West Indian” essential oil whereas plants in Indonesia and Sri Lanka produce an “East Indian” essential oil. The differing chemistry of these two essential oils is discussed under the Chemistry section of this article.
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) can be grown from seed and is now cultivated worldwide.
I have personally not had the opportunity to grow nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) as I live in a plant zone which isn’t conducive to its successful growth. In addition, it is quite a finicky plant to grow for domestic reasons, given its requirements. However, if you live in an area that is conducive to it successful growth, you might be able to identify it commercially and/or attempt to grow it yourself.
The National Parks Flora and Fauna website states that nutmeg’s native habitat is primary, tropical rainforest. Sun and water are two elements which help nutmeg to thrive, along with specific soil needs. Nutmeg can be grown from seed or from a graft or stem cutting.
How to Grow Nutmeg: Nutmeg prefers a rich, loamy, acidic soil that doesn’t hold water. It should also have a low pH.[5,8] It likes a little shade. You’ll need patience to grow nutmeg from seed as it can take up to two months for seeds to germinate.8 The website, Hunker, has some detailed information on growing nutmeg from seed including tips on keeping seeds fresh and moist for good germination rates, correct seed storing, and overnight soaking of seeds before planting for a more successful germination.
Garden Benefits: Nutmeg attracts birds to your garden. In the Molucca Islands, nutmeg pigeons (Ducula spilorrhoa) help to disperse nutmeg seeds.
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) has a bit of a dark and shameful history, at least for those of us who live in the western world. Like some of the other familiar spices that we use today, nutmeg made its way to the western world through trade routes and spice wars. Spices were once considered more valuable than gold, and consequently many a battle was fought over them to retain “control” of such prized plants.
Battaglia states that nutmeg was not known to the Greeks or Romans and that its first recorded appearance was in 540AD by Actius of Constantinople. Battagalia also writes that, “Arab traders [most probably] brought it to Europe from the Moluccas via Java and India.” Indeed, its name could be a derivative of the Arab word mesk, meaning musky or fragrant.
Nutmeg soon became a favorite as a strewing aromatic, like many other aromatic herbs in medieval Europe. Because of its popularity, the original source of nutmeg became a quest for western explorers, including the Portuguese and the Dutch, who each headed to the Molucca islands and laid claim to the trade of nutmegs for a lengthy period of hundreds of years from about the 12th century. Battles were won and lost between these two countries, as each fought to retain control of the trade, in addition to a brief British occupation of the Molucca islands in the 18th century. Sadly, many nutmeg trees were destroyed in the battle for control over the years.[6, 11]
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) was traditionally used to flavor drinks and food before coffee (Coffea spp.) and chocolate (Theobroma cacao) became the preferred accompaniments. However, traditionally nutmeg has been used medicinally as an aphrodisiac, for digestive issues, and for insomnia. It has also been used for rheumatism and eczema. But take note that it is key to use in low amounts to avoid toxicity, over stimulation or hallucinogenic effects.
Lawless adds that nutmeg has also been used for kidney issues and to “tone the uterine muscles [in pregnancy].” A fixed oil, not an essential oil, can be used in soap and candle making.
Herb: Chevallier states that the main components of nutmeg are a volatile oil and a fixed oil. The volatile oil includes such chemical components as “alpha-pinene, beta-pinene, alpha-terpinene, beta-terpinene, myristicin, elincine, [and] safrole.” The fixed oil, also called “nutmeg butter,” contains butyrin and myristine. Mabey expands on this description by stating that within the volatile oil component 5-15% of that is eugenol and iso-eugenol. The chemical components of nutmeg include 25-40% of a fixed oil and within that particular component 60% is myristic acid.
Essential Oil: Two “types” of nutmeg essential oil are generally produced. Plants in Grenada produce a “West Indian” essential oil whereas plants in Indonesia and Sri Lanka produce an “East Indian” essential oil. Tisserand and Young, Battaglia, and Peace-Rhind compare the main chemical components of these two types of nutmeg essential oil, as curated in the following table. I have included both the safrole and methyl eugenol component percentages due to the safety note included by Tisserand and Young on differing dermal amounts in using each essential oil. Note that each essential oil contains many other chemical components as well. In all cases, the percentage range can vary in each.
CO2: Kerkhof17 is one of the only resources to profile nutmeg CO2 extract. She lists the chemical components of the CO2 as “…fatty acids and 80% EO [essential oil] with some 16% α-pinene, around 12% β-pinene, [and] 2% myrcene…It also contains high levels (higher than distilled oil) sabinene (26.7%) and myristicine (20%).”
Adulteration: Battaglia adds an interesting point on the adulteration of nutmeg essential oil. He states that it is frequently adulterated with tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) essential oil, not the first oil that would spring to mind with regard to adulteration of a warm, spicy oil. However, one of the original sources of this statement, Arctander, expands on this with the similar chemical components found in each, namely the monoterpenes. Indeed, if you compare the Caddy profile for both nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) essential oil and tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) essential oil, there are several common denominators. Arctander also writes that the terpenes are removed in nutmeg essential oil for flavor materials such as for use in meat sauces.
Both Lawless and Arctander discuss nutmeg worms. Worms will eat the fixed oil within the nutmeg seed but not the essential oil constituents. The fixed oil contains starch and fat, presumably more appetite-friendly and non-toxic to the worm.
Essential Oil: I always think of nutmeg essential oil as warm, spicy, and soft. But it can be a little sharp in large amounts and there are certainly other nuances and notes to it. Peace-Rhind adds that nutmeg essential oil is sweet, fresh, and has “pine-like, ethereal notes.” Remember that pinene content? That’s what brings in those more unusual pine notes. Moriel classifies nutmeg as a “dry, spicy oriental” fragrance, in the same class as patchouli (Pogostemon cablin), myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), and ginger (Zingiber officinale). Arctander adds that nutmeg essential oil has a somewhat woody note on the drydown. He compares nutmeg essential oil’s aroma as similar to sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana) essential oil.
The essential oil is clear white or pale-yellow in color.
CO2 Extract: Kerkhof describes nutmeg CO2 extract as “warm, sweet-spicy and characteristic nutty, yet richer than the distilled oil and smooth.” It is a clear, orange-red liquid.
Hydrosol: There was very little verifiable information I could find on nutmeg as a hydrosol. Aromaweb states that the hydrosol has an aroma “reminiscent to that of diluted nutmeg essential oil, but it almost smells a bit rubbery.”
Herb: The central therapeutic properties of nutmeg as an herbal plant include carminative (for example, for flatulence), stimulant, staves off nausea and vomiting, and offers some relief from muscle spasms.[9,14]
Essential Oil: Nutmeg essential oil is anti-inflammatory, aphrodisiac, anti-convulsant, antioxidant, digestive, emmenagogue, anti-emetic, anti-rheumatic, antispasmodic, a prostaglandin inhibitor, stimulant and a tonic.[4,12] Use nutmeg essential oil for conditions such as flatulence, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, rheumatism and other similar types of pain and inflammation (including Raynaud’s disease), stress, nausea, digestive problems, fatigue caused by anxiety and stress, poor circulation, gout, amenorrhea, and bacterial infection with immune issues.[4,12,19]
Energetics: Battaglia suggests that nutmeg essential oil, as a warming oil, can be used to alleviate conditions which are associated with cold. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), cold indicates issues with digestion, pain and immune support for fever, colds, and chills. Nutmeg essential oil is aligned with the elements of Earth and Water.
CO2 Extract: Nutmeg CO2 extract can be grounding, energizing, anxiolytic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, neuroprotective, relieve mental exhaustion, boost memory, reduce feelings of isolation, help digestive issues, and it is an aphrodisiac.
Cautions for Use
Herb: Safe in low doses for medicinal and culinary use as a spice. High doses of the herb may cause hallucinations, double vision, convulsion, disorientation, be strongly stimulant, and cause toxicity (believed to be the myristicin content), even leading to death.[14,15] Chevallier states that “…the consumption of just two whole nutmegs has been known to cause death.”
Essential Oil: Use in low doses. Avoid in pregnancy. The chemical components of safrole and methyl eugenol found within the essential oil are thought to be carcinogenic. Due to this fact, Tisserand and Young advise a maximum dermal use of 0.8% for East Indian nutmeg essential oil and a maximum dermal use of 5% for West Indian nutmeg essential oil. See the Chemistry Profile in this article for the amounts of safrole and methyl eugenol found within each type of essential oil. However, if nutmeg essential oil is used responsibly and in the advised quantities, there should be little worry of the same hallucinogen and toxicity effects when compared to use of the whole plant (seed).
CO2 Extract: Avoid use in pregnancy (unless diffusing), with children under six years of age, reduce dilution rate to 10-50% of general dose for children aged seven to twelve, and to 50-75% of general dose for seniors over the age of sixty-five. Kerkhof recommends a maximum topical use at 0.25-0.5% for general use.
Nutmeg has a number of therapeutic properties, as supported by the following clinical studies and trials:
- Pain: In a study entitled Nutmeg oil alleviates chronic inflammatory pain through inhibition of COX-2 expression and substance P release in vivo by Wei Kevin Zhang, Shan-Shan Tao, Ting-Ting Li, Yu-Sang Li, Xiao-Jun Li, and He-Bin Tang it was found that “nutmeg oil could potentially alleviate the CFA-injection induced joint swelling, mechanical allodynia and heat hyperanalgesia of rats through inhibition of COX-2 expression and blood substance P level, which made it possible for nutmeg oil to be a potential chronic pain reliever.” A Complete Freud’s Adjuvant (CFA) injection was used which is known to cause pain. Guidelines are issued for its use in animal research.
- Insomnia: Nutmeg was recommended as an herb to aid in falling back sleep in an article entitled Herbal Medicine for Insomnia by Eric Yarnell in an Alternative Complimentary Therapies Journal. However, note this is use of the specific herb, not the essential oil, and should be used under the guidance of an herbal practitioner.
- Happiness and Calm: In an article, Aromatherapy as Mind-Body Medicine, by Robert Tisserand in the International Journal of Aromatherapy, Tisserand states (as summarized in the American Botanical Council’s HerbClip™ Online extract) that nutmeg is one of several oils which can “significantly increase happiness and calmness” and “decrease embarrassment and anger.”
Clinical studies need to be read in context with many factors including size of study, control methodology, number of participants and location. The above are extracts or summaries of studies and their stated perceived outcomes. Research each study fully and correctly to learn more.
Nutmeg in Full Profile
It’s fair to say that nutmeg had a turbulent history of “trade rights” in its early days for use in the Western world. It is one of several spices that made its way to us for use in our aromatic apothecaries and kitchens. Next time you add some nutmeg to your pumpkin-spice latte or pie, remember what it and others went through to make it available to you. And remember its real, true value in any aromatherapy blends you make in the future, beyond its components and therapeutic properties.
To the Rescue Salve
This is a multi-purpose, jill-of-all-trades salve, designed for emergency, acute conditions when nothing else is available.
Uses: Pain, inflammation, digestive issues, or just for a quick-pick-me-up when life overwhelms. It’s a great salve to have around these days as pain, stomachache and stress are common occurrences as we navigate the current pandemic.
Aroma: This blend has a strong, grounding spicy-medicinal aroma, with an elusive, zesty top note.
- 6:1 ratio.
- 3% (approximately) dilution rate.*
- Recipe makes 9 x 2-oz. glass jar salves.
*The dilution rate reflects acute, not chronic, use and could even go up to 5% under the supervision of a certified aromatherapist.
The Infused Oil
Step One: Make the Rose and Nutmeg Infused Oil
Pro Tip: Co-infuse the rose and nutmeg oil with the calendula oil required for this recipe!
Note: You will only use a proportion of the finished oil for the To the Rescue salve recipe as listed.
- 6-fl.oz. organic sunflower (Helanthius annuus) oil
- ¼ tsp. of ground organic, whole nutmegs
- Dried organic rosebuds to pack the jar.
- Take two organic whole nutmegs and place them in a coffee grinder.
- Grind until you have ground them down to small grains.
- Pour the sunflower oil into a 6-oz. jar.
- Stir in ¼ tsp. of the ground nutmeg to the sunflower oil.
- Pack the jar with dried organic rosebuds. Make sure that the oil covers all botanicals in the jar.
- Cap and label the jar.
- Store in a dark closet for 6-8 weeks, remembering to shake the jar gently intermittently.*
- After 6-8 weeks, strain off the botanicals, and repour the oil into a storage container. Label.
- Store in a cool, dark place or the refrigerator to prolong shelf life.
* Why a long, cold infusion?
Infusing oils is an art. I have come to believe that a long, cold infusion is more in line with nature. However, some plant materials, such as resins, need to be gently warmed to release an aromatic’s healing qualities. You could also do this with nutmeg if you prefer. Simply infuse the nutmeg (on its own) in the sunflower oil by heating gently on the stove for between 6 to 8 hours. Then add in the dried rosebuds and infuse as directed above.
2-oz. organic beeswax (Cera alba)
6-fl.oz. infused rose (Rosa spp.) and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) oil
6-fl.oz. calendula (Calendula officinalis) oil
- 28 drops nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
- 40 drops vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides)
- 60 drops cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
- 40 drops sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana)
- 28 drops ginger (Zingiber officinale)
- 40 drops lime (Citrus aurantifolia)
Step Two: Make the Salve
- Weigh out the beeswax (by weight) and infused oils (by volume) in separate Pyrex® jugs. Set aside.
- Mix the essential oils in a glass beaker. Set aside.
- Set up the glass jars ready to pour the mixture into. Label them with the date and contents.
- Using the Bain Marie method, gently heat regular water in a small pan on the stove top, enough to create a light steam.
- Place the beeswax Pyrex® jug into the pan (resting just above the steam but not touching the water) and wait for the beeswax to melt. Make sure that the jug will accommodate 18-oz. of liquid when complete.
- Once the beeswax is melted, stir in the calendula oil, followed by the rose and nutmeg infused oil.
- Take off the heat.
- Add the essential oil blend and stir in.
- Pour the blend into the glass jars.
- Leave to set. Cap.
To Use: Apply a dime-sized amount of salve to places of pain as needed. Dab wrists and inhale for stress and anxiety release. Massage a dime-sized amount of salve clockwise over abdomen for stomach upsets.
Cautions: Avoid use in pregnancy. Risk of photosensitivity. Do not apply before going out into sunlight or other forms of ultra-violet light. For adult use only.
*Permission is given to use this recipe for personal use but not for commercial reproduction or gain.
- Harrison, Lorraine, 2012, Latin for Gardeners, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.92.
- iPlantCollaborative™ website, Taxonomic Name Resolution Service (TNRS) v4.1, Myristica fragrans search, accessed from: http://tnrs.iplantcollaborative.org/TNRSapp.html
- The Plant List website, Myristica fragrans Houtt. synonyms, accessed from: http://www.theplantlist.org/tpl/record/tro-21800121
- Lawless, Julia, 2013, The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, US; Conari Press, pp.147-148.
- Gardening Know How website, Can You Grow Nutmeg?, accessed from: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/trees/nutmeg/nutmeg-plant-information.htm#:~:text=Nutmeg%20trees%20can%20grow%20in,medium%20texture%20and%20low%20salinity.
- UCLA website, Spices, Exotic Flavors and Medicines, Nutmeg and Mace, accessed from: https://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice/index.cfm?displayID=19
- Penn State University website, Plant Village: Nutmeg, accessed from: https://plantvillage.psu.edu/topics/nutmeg/infos/diseases_and_pests_description_uses_propagation
- National Parks Flora and Fauna website, Myristica fragrans Houtt., accessed from: https://www.nparks.gov.sg/florafaunaweb/flora/3/0/3037
- Botanical.com website, A Modern Herbal: Nutmeg, accessed from: https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/n/nutmeg07.html
- Britannica website, Nutmeg, accessed from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/nutmeg#ref243287
- Battaglia, Salvatore, 2018, The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, 3rd Edition, Vol 1 – Foundations and Materia Medica, Australia: Black Pepper Creative Pty Ltd, p. 437.
- Peace Rhind, Jennifer, 2016, Aromatherapeutic Blending: Essential Oils in Synergy, UK: Singling Dragon, p.234.
- Hunker website, How to Grow a Nutmeg Tree from Seed, accessed from: https://www.hunker.com/12002461/how-to-grow-a-nutmeg-tree-from-seed
- Chevallier, Andrew, 2016, Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine 3rd Edition, US: DK Publishing, p. 115.
- Mabey, Richard, 1988, The New Age Herbalist, UK: Gaia Books Ltd., pp. 88-89.
- Tisserand, Robert and Rodney Young, 2014, Essential Oil Safety 2nd Edition, UK: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, pp.366-367.
- Kerkhof, Madeleine, 2018, CO2 Extracts in Aromatherapy 1st Edition, Netherlands: Kicozo, pp. 99-101.
- Arctander, Steffen, 1960, Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, US: Pathfinder, pp. 442-445.
- Caddy, Rosemary, 1997, Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Colour, UK: Amberwood Publishing Ltd, p.57 and p.83.
- Moriel, Ayala, 2014, Foundation of Natural Perfumery: A Practical Hands-on Guide to Creating Your Own Fragrances Course Workbook, p.81.
- Aromaweb website, Nutmeg Hydrosol, accessed from: https://www.aromaweb.com/hydrosols/nutmeg-hydrosol.asp
- Taylor and Francis Online Website, Nutmeg oil alleviates chronic inflammatory pain through inhibition of COX-2 expression and substance P release in vivo, Zhang, Wei Kevin, Tao, Shan-Shan, Li, Ting-Ting, Li, Yu-Sang, Li, Xiao-Jun, and He-Bin Tang, Food and Nutrition Research Journal, 2016, Volume 60, Issue 1, accessed from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3402/fnr.v60.30849
- Academia website, Herbal Medicine for Insomnia, Yarnell, Eric, Alternative and Complimentary Therapies Journal, 2015, 21(4): 173-179, PDF accessed from: https://www.academia.edu/22236184/Herbal_medicine_for_insomnia
- American Botanical Council website, HerbClip™ Online, Tisserand, Robert, Aromatherapy as Mind-Body Medicine, International Journal of Aromatherapy. Vol. 6, No. 3:14-19, accessed from: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbclip/098/review41932.html
About Sharon Falsetto:
Sharon Falsetto, BA (Hons), is a UK-certified aromatherapist through the Penny Price Academy of Aromatherapy. She has lived in the United States since 2006 and is the founder of Sedona Aromatics: The Garden School.TM Sharon wrote and edited an aromatherapy education program for Sedona Aromatics based on the concept of Botanical Aromatherapy™. Sedona Aromatics is a NAHA approved school educator and a NAHA approved continuing education provider.
Since the onset of COVID-19, Sharon has pivoted her aromatherapy school to a low profit business model, now offering community aromatherapy scholarships for courses and affording aromatherapy education to more during these challenging times. Her school’s online Botanical Aromatherapy™ membership club is scheduled to go fully live in early 2021.
Sharon has worked within the healthcare industry since the 1990’s. She has also been writing and editing professionally since 2008 and is both a published author and editor in aromatherapy. With a graduate degree in business (with honors), she also coordinates the Business Botanicals™ program for Sedona Aromatics, helping small businesses navigate changing times.
Sharon is an intuitive aromatherapy blend formulator. As a continuing student in the study of herbalism for home and garden use, she also believes in integrating herbal knowledge within her aromatherapy formulas and teachings.
Sharon works from her garden studio in Sedona, Arizona, surrounded by her one-acre homestead and aromatic gardens. She is the author of Authentic Aromatherapy, the chief editor of the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal, the NAHA Director Coordinator, and the NAHA regional director for Arizona. She will be presenting at the NAHA Conference in June 2021 on The Garden Apothecary: Traditional Aromatics for 2021. You can visit Sharon’s website at: www.sedonaaromatics.com
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