The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Myristica fragrans Houttuyn






Myristicaceae (Nutmeg Family)

Forms and Subspecies


It is likely that there are a number of varieties and cultivars that differ especially in regard to their psychoactive effects.



Myristica amboinensis Gandoger

Myristica americana Rottb.

Myristica aromatica Lamk.

Myristica aromatica Swartz

Myristica moschata Thunberg

Myristica officinalis L. f.

Myristica philippensis Gandoger

Folk Names


Almendra de la semilla, balla (Banda), Banda nutmeg, bazbaz (Persian), bisbâsa al-hindî (Arabic/Yemen), buah pala (Malayalam), bush-apal, chan-thet (Laotian), hindî, jaephal (Hindi), jan-thet (Tahi), jauz-i-bûyâ (Arabic, “fragrant nut”), ju-tou-k’ou, juz, mada shaunda, massa, miskad, moscada, moscata miristica (Italian), moschocaria, moschocarydia, muscade, muscadier, muscadier cultivé, muscatennußbaum, muschatennuß, muskach’u (Callawaya), muskatnußbaum, musque, myristica moschata, noix muscade, nootmuskaat (Dutch), noz moscada, nuce muscata, nuez moscada, nutmeg, nutmeg tree, pala banda, roudoukou (Chinese)



It is very likely that the nutmeg tree originated on the island of Banda (Meister 1677, 57*; Van Gils and Cox 1994, 118), where it was derived from a wild form through cultivation. Nutmeg appears to have first arrived in Europe with the Crusaders (Norman 1991, 46*). During the seventeenth century, the trade in nutmeg seeds flourished. The Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Companie (V.O.C.), which held the monopoly on the Spice Islands, controlled the trade.

In England, abortions were once induced by grinding nutmeg and adding it to beer (Fühner 1943, 240*). During the 1950s and 1960s, great quantities of nutmeg powder were ingested in the United States as a marijuana substitute. Today, the plant is regarded as hallucinogenic (Bastien 1987, 138*). In Indonesia, it appears that a psychoactive use was (formerly) unknown (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 124). However, Rumphius (1741–1755) does report of an incident on Banda Island in which two soldiers slept beneath a nutmeg tree and woke up the next morning completely drunk (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 123).



The nutmeg tree is endemic to the Indonesian province of the Moluccas, formerly known as the Spice Islands (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 117). It is now planted in numerous tropical areas.



Propagation is via seeds, which must be pregerminated with care. The seedlings can then be planted in the desired location.

The tree requires a tropical climate with heavy precipitation (2,210 to 3,667 mm per year). It especially prefers rich, volcanic soil and actually thrives only in a maritime environment (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 118). In cultivation, the tree first produces fruits when it is seven or eight years old and then continues to produce for many years (twenty to thirty) (Pahlow 1995, 72*). Although it bears fruits throughout the year, April and November are the main harvest periods (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 120).


One of the earliest European illustrations of the nutmeg tree, this depiction is botanically quite correct. (Woodcut from Garcia da Orta, Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India, 1987)




The tree, which can attain a height of 20 meters, bears evergreen leaves (approximately 8 cm in length) on short stalks. The inconspicuous, whitish flowers are diclinous and hang in loose clusters. The tree is dioecious, although some plants have male and female flowers. The pale yellow fruits are reminiscent of apricots but are somewhat longer. When they ripen, they split open from top to bottom, exposing the dark brown seed and the surrounding red arils (Isaac 1993).


The nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans), with a ripe fruit that has opened to offer a glimpse of the “nut” and the surrounding mace “flower.”



One type of Myristica fragrans from the Seychelles has very darkly colored “nuts” and deep orange arils.


The true nutmeg tree is very easily confused with Myristica argentea Warb. (New Guinea), M. malabarica Lam. (India), M. speciosa Warb., and a species indigenous to the Moluccas, Myristica fatua Houtt. The seeds and arils of these and other species (see table below) were sometimes sold as nutmeg counterfeits (Schneider 1974, 2:339*).

Two species of nutmeg trees indigenous to Australia (Myristica insipida and Horsefieldia australiana) develop fruits and “nuts” that are very similar to those of the true nutmeg tree. The Aborigines use all parts of the tree, including the so-called nuts, as sources of materials, food, and medicines (Wightman and Andrews 1991, 14*). It is entirely conceivable that they also discovered the psychoactive effects of nutmeg oil.


An ancient Chinese illustration of the nutmeg, known as ju-tou-k’ou.


Psychoactive Material


—Nutmeg (myristicae seed, myristicae nux, nuces aromaticae, nuces nucistae, nuclei myristici, nux moschata, semen myristicae)

—Arils (macis, mace, gul-i-jauz, flower of nutmeg, nutmeg flower, arillus myristicae)

—Nutmeg oil (myristicae aetheroleum, aetheroleum myristicae, macidis aetheroleum, myristici essentia, oleum macidis, oleum myristicae, oleum myristicae aethereum, oleum nucis moschati, oleum nucis moschati aethereum, essential oil of nutmeg, mace oil)


Preparation and Dosage

Seeds obtained from the ripe fruits are dried in the sun, over a charcoal fire, or in drying houses and then limed. Originally the seeds were covered with lime to inhibit their ability to germinate; today, the lime serves to protect the seeds from insect infestation and damage (Pahlow 1995, 72*).

The nutmeg flowers (arillus, macis) are separated from the seeds after the fruits have ripened. They are then pressed flat and dried in drying houses or in the sun. As they dry, their brilliant red color typically transforms into a warm yellow.

The light yellow essential oil of nutmeg is obtained by steam distillation of the seeds and seed coats (Isaac 1993, 868; Van Gils and Cox 1994, 120). Steam distillation can also be used to extract an essential oil from the green leaves. The essential oil of the leaves is used chiefly to adulterate or counterfeit the true nutmeg oil (Isaac 1993, 869).

The following recipe is used to produce a mixture known as obat penenang, “sedative medicine” (this amount corresponds to the dosage for a child; an adult should use 1.5 times this amount):



leaves of violtjes (Viola odorata L.)


leaves of daun seribu (Achillea millefolium L.) 2 arils of mace (Myristica fragrans)


piece of rhizome (app. 4 cm long) of jahe merah (Zingiber officinale)


piece of rhizome (app. 4 cm long) of dringo (Acorus calamus)

The calamus and ginger roots are chopped into small pieces, mixed with the other ingredients, placed in a pot with three glasses of water, and boiled for fifteen minutes. The liquid is then strained off and sweetened with honey to taste. A glass of this is drunk two or three times daily for a period of one to two weeks (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 123).

In the Moluccas, nutmeg seeds are combined with jahe merah (Zingiber officinale), sereh (lemongrass, Cymbopogon nardus [L.] Rendle; cf. Cymbopogon densiflorus), cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), and soaked raw rice to produce an ointment for medicinal purposes (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 122).

Powdered nutmeg also can be used as an ingredient in smoking blends and snuffs (Weil 1965).

The information regarding dosages for psycho-active purposes varies considerably. In 1576, Lobelius reported that a pregnant English woman fell into delirium after having eaten ten or twelve nutmeg seeds (Van Gils and Cox 1994:123). Malcolm X, alias Malcolm Little (1925–1965), noted in his autobiography that a matchbox full of nutmeg powder produced a “high” corresponding to that produced by three to four joints of marijuana (Schleiffer 1979, 100*). Usually, two or three nutmeg seeds is regarded as a hallucinogenic dosage (Sherry et al. 1982, 61). Controlled experiments have determined that a dosage of up to 15 g of seed powder will produce unequivocal psychoactive effects (Isaac 1993, 884). According to Leung (1995, 157*), 7 to 8 g will induce hallucinations and euphoria.

When using the essential oil, as little as a few drops can be sufficient to produce clear psychoactive effects. Nutmeg oil is applied sublingually, i.e., under the tongue, from whence it slowly disperses. The medicinal and toxicological literature does not contain any definitive information concerning toxic amounts. In one source, it was noted that rabbits die within thirteen hours and five days of ingesting 8 to 21 g of nutmeg oil (Isaac 1993, 871).

Ritual Use


In ancient India, the nutmeg seed was known as mada shaunda, “stupefying fruit,” and was utilized as an aphrodisiac, as an additive to betel quids, and as an important ingredient in curries. It was used not only in the kitchen but also in medicine (Ayurveda) and magic. In Malaya, nutmeg seeds were eaten to treat possession; in other words, a psychoactive substance was used to treat a mental illness. During the Middle Ages, it was regarded as an agent that incited to the “traffic of Venus.” An unusual love magic practice has continued into modern times (see margin text on the next page).

Smoking mace flowers in order to get “high” is common practice among students in Papua New Guinea (David Orr, pers. comm.). Such use is likely more hedonistic than ritual in nature. It has been observed that finely ground nutmeg seeds are sniffed during the Indonesian shadow theater (wayang) (Weil 1965) (cf. snuffs).

In the Moluccas, nutmeg seeds are used in religious healing rituals. When all other methods have failed to help a seriously ill child, then nutmeg seeds will be placed around his or her neck. Prayers are spoken that ask God to heal the child and reveal his or her fate (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 123).




Medicinal Use


The nutmeg seed plays an important role in traditional Indonesian medicine. It is used in treatments for stomachaches, stomach cramps, kidney problems, rheumatism, nervousness, vomiting, whooping cough, and other ailments. On the Moluccas, nutmegs are used primarily as sedatives for children and for those suffering from sleep disorders. The powdered seeds are ingested with milk or a banana drink. The mixture obat penenang, “calming medicine” (see above), is said to be especially efficacious; however, indigenous healers are of the opinion that a person can become somewhat “dependent” on this drink (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 123). A mixture of mace, Viola odorata leaves, red ginger (Zingiber officinale), and Phaseolus radiatus L. beans is said to improve concentration.

In Malaysian medicine (and in the medicine of the Malaysian Muslims), nutmeg seeds and flowers are used as stimulants, digestives, aphrodisiacs, and tonics. They are even ingested in treatments for malaria and “imbecility” (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 122). To relieve headaches, oil of nutmeg is applied to the temples or ingested in tea (one drop). An ointment known as param is applied externally for rheumatism and limb pains.

In the Moluccas, the oil of the related species Myristica malabarica Lam. is also used to treat headaches (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 122).

“This massa or balla in the Bandamic language, known as the nutmeg tree in German, grows, as is now thought, on the island of Banda, and as the coconut tree is the most useful in the world, this may be the rarest, because it does not grow in any place in all of India other than here. . . . The fruit or green nut, when preserved in the same manner as our Welsh nuts, and eaten early on an empty stomach with its outer green shell, is a superb preservative from unhealthy air. Indeed, it can greatly refresh even the ill and cheer them up with fresh spirits. . . . The good doctors can judge how the usefulness of this noble fruit and its true heart can be made use of in oil, water, and other things suitable for medicine, but this is a little different than the Indians [= Asian Indians/Indonesians] believe that it is good to use. The nut is said to strengthen the brain, sharpen the memory, warm and fortify the upset stomach, dispel flatulence or wind, impart good breath, dispel urine, constipate the red dysentery, in sum, for all types of ailments of the head, brain, stomach, liver, and mother’s complaints, while the oil alone is said to be better and more powerful than the seed for all ailments now conceived. But the flower is said to help a cold, upset stomach and dispel all evil moistures and uprising winds beyond all measure. . . . The seeds are of two kinds, the male and the female, the male is blackish brown and twice as long as the female, but this last type genus feminini is the best and most powerful.”






(1677, CH. 8, 3*)


“Like peppercorns, the nutmeg seed is used for an unappetizing love magic: The girl swallows it, and when the seed has come out again, she powders it and mixes it into the food of her beloved (Franconia). As a result of the physical admixing, the aphrodisiac steers the boy’s kindled desire for love solely toward this girl.”






(1986, 2:83*)


In India, preparations of nutmeg are used in place of opium (see Papaver somniferum) when opium is contraindicated for a patient. A tonic is obtained using brandy (alcohol) and salt (Isaac 1993, 884). In Yemen, the seeds are used as tranquilizers and the “flowers” (arils) to treat headaches (Fleurentin and Pelt 1982, 92 f.*). Use of nutmeg as an aphrodisiac was and still is very widespread (from India to Arabia and into Europe; Weil 1965).

In homeopathic medicine, tinctures of nutmeg seeds and mace flowers (Myristica fragrans hom. HAB1, Nux moschata hom. PFX, Nux moschata hom. HPUS88) are often used in accordance with the medical description to treat nervous complaints and perceptual disturbances (Isaac 1993, 886).



The essential oil of the nutmeg seed consists of approximately 4% myristicin, 39% sabinene, 13% α-pinene, 9% β-pinene, 4% α-phellandrene, 4% limonene, 1% γ-terpinene, 1% ≠-cymene, 1% terpinolene, and traces of other substances (safrole, eugenol, isoeugenol). The composition can vary considerably (Janssens et al. 1990). The essential oil obtained from the leaves contains 80% α-pinene and 10% myristicin (Bastien 1987, 138; Isaac 1993, 869).

Myristicin, elemicine, and safrole appear to be responsible for the psychoactive effects. Apparently an amination takes place during metabolism that transforms these substances into centrally active amphetamine derivatives (Isaac 1993, 883; Shulgin and Naranjo 1967; Weil 1965, 1967). Amination of myristicin yields MMDA (= 3-methoxy-4,5-methylendioxyamphetamine), a known entactogenic compound (Shulgin and Shulgin 1991*). Elemicine is transformed into TMA (3,4,5-trimethoxyamphetamine), a substance related to mescaline. Aminization of safrole results in MDMA (3,4-methylendioxymethamphetamine), which is now known in counterculture circles as ecstasy or the “love drug” (cf. herbal ecstasy). Although myristicin has been pharmacologically demonstrated to have a mild MAO-inhibiting effect (Isaac 1993, 883), it is likely not suitable for use as an ayahuasca analog. The trimyristine that is present in the extract has a sedative effect upon chickens (Sherry et al. 1982).



Because they are sold as nutmeg “flowers,” the arils (mace) that envelop the nutmeg seed were once thought to be the actual flowers of the nutmeg tree. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)




Hildegard von Bingen provided an early description of the psychoactive powers of nutmeg seeds and their MDMA-like, empathogenic effects (cf. herbal ecstasy):


The nutmeg seed has great warmth and a good mixture in its powers. And when a person eats the nutmeg seed, it opens his heart and cleanses his mind and brings him to a good understanding. Take, as always, nutmeg and the same weight of cinnamon and some cloves and powder these. And then make some little cakes of this powder and bread crumbs and some water and, and eat these often, and it will subdue the bitterness of the heart and of your mind, and it opens your heart and your dull mind, and it makes your spirit happy and cleanses your mind, and it diminishes all of the harmful juices in you, and it imparts a good juice to your blood, and it makes you strong. (Physica 1.21)


The pharmacologist Johann E. Purkyne provided a very detailed description of the psychoactive effects of nutmeg in his work Einige Beiträge zur physiologischen Pharmacologie (1829):


On the narcotic effects of nutmeg. . . . I first ingested an entire seed one morning, in pieces with sugar, which was not unpleasant. The effects that I felt were unimportant; some indolence in the outer senses and in the locomotor system, rather persistent in that they lasted the entire day, but not disturbing, whether on the thinking or on the other faculties; only I did notice that a small glass of wine after eating affected me in a disproportionately strong manner. One afternoon, after a moderate meal, I ingested three nutmeg seeds. The effects soon manifested themselves: an irresistible sleepiness overcame me, and I spent the afternoon slumbering on a small sofa, in what was otherwise an uncomfortable position, reveling in pleasant, peaceful dreams that were occasionally interrupted by external disturbances. . . . After these effects had completely subsided, I made another experiment in which I grated some two drams [= 8.74 g] of nutmeg into pure brandy and drank this. Here, too, I found the effects to be significantly different, in that instead of a calm sleepiness, I was affected by a general unease in the muscular system and dizziness. (In Sajner 1965, 16ff.)


Prison inmates who have used nutmeg as a substitute drug (for Cannabis indica) have reported visual and auditory hallucinations, sensations of floating, and disturbances of the body schemata (Van Gils and Cox 1994, 123).

Nutmeg oil has induced out-of-body, shamanic experiences (Devereux 1992).

Commercial Forms and Regulations


Nutmeg seeds and flowers are classified internationally as spices, i.e., foodstuffs, and are subject only to the various regulations pertaining to food. Grades of differing quality are available. The legal situation pertaining to the essential oil is not entirely clear. The essential oil is sometimes available from sources dealing in aromatic substances.

“Because mescaline-like metabolites are produced from myristicin and elemicine, the nutmeg seed has also been tested as an inebriating drug. The danger of addiction, however, can be ruled out completely, for anyone who has willingly ingested an overdose of nutmeg to order to experience the hallucinogenic effects acquires such an aversion to this spice that he can no longer take it.”






(1995, 73*)







See also the entry for essential oil.


Devereux, Paul. 1992. An apparently nutmeg-induced experience of magical flight. In Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 1992 (1):189–91. Berlin: VWB.


Forrest, J. E., and R. A. Heacock. 1972. Nutmeg and mace, the psychotropic spices from Myristica fragransLloydia 35:440–49.


Greenberg, S., and E. L. Ortiz. 1983. The spice of life. New York: Amaryllis Press.


Isaac, Otto. 1993. Myristica. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 5:863–94. Berlin: Springer.


Janssens, Jos, Gert M. Laekeman, Lug A. C. Pieters, Jozef Totte, Arnold G. Herman, and Arnold J. Vlietinck. 1990. Nutmeg oil: Identification and quantitation of platelet aggregation. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 29:179–88.


Payne, R. B. 1963. Nutmeg intoxication. New England Journal of Medicine 269:36–38.


Sajner, Josef. 1965. Joh. Ev. Purkynes Beschreibung der pharmakologischen Wirkung der Muskatnuß. Die Medizinische Welt 46:2613–15.


Sherry, C. J., L. E. Ray, and R. E. Herron. 1982. The pharmacological effects of a ligroin extract of nutmeg (Myristica fragrans). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 6 (1): 61–66.


Shulgin, Alexander T. 1963. Composition of the myristicin fraction from oil of nutmeg. Nature 197:379.


Shulgin, Alexander T., Thornton Sargent, and Claudia [sic] Naranjo. 1967. The chemistry and psychopharmacology of nutmeg and of several related phenylisopropylamines. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 202–14. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.


Truitt, Edward B., Jr. 1967. The pharmacology of myristicin and nutmeg. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 215–22. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.


Van Gils, Carl, and Paul Alan Cox. 1994. Ethnobotany of nutmeg in the Spice Islands. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 42:117–24.


Weil, Andrew. 1965. Nutmeg as a narcotic. Economic Botany 19:194–217.


———. 1967. Nutmeg as a psychotropic drug. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 188–201. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.