Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: nutmeg from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Kernel of the hard aromatic seed of the evergreen nutmeg tree, native to the Maluku Islands, Indonesia. Both the nutmeg and its secondary covering, known as mace, are used as spices in cookery. (Myristica fragrans, family Myristicaceae.)

Nutmeg is used in traditional medicine. For example, the African nutmeg tree Pycnanthus angolensis is used in traditional African medicine to treat chronic fungal infections in diabetics. As well as being used in traditional medicine, in 1999 US pharmacologists identified two compounds in nutmeg that lower glucose levels in diabetic mice.

Summary Article: Nutmeg and mace
from The Encyclopedia of Seeds: Science, Technology and Uses

The nutmeg tree, Myristica fragrans Houtt (Myristicaceae) is unique among the spice plants as it produces two separate and distinct products-the nutmeg which is the kernel of the seed and the mace which is the dried aril that surrounds the single seed within the fruit (Colour Plate 3E, F). It is a dioecious, tall evergreen tree native to Moluccas Islands, from where it has spread to other tropical regions (see: Spices and flavours, Table S.12). Nutmeg is usually propagated by seeds and sometimes by grafting. The tree starts yielding when 5-8 years old for up to 40 years or more. Six-nine months after flowering the fruit ripens as a pendulous fleshy drupe. The succulent aromatic yellow pericarp splits into halves to expose the purplish, brown, shiny testa surrounded by a net-like red aril (Colour Plate 3E). The testa encloses an ovoid greyish brown kernel, 2-3 cm long and 1.4-2.0 cm broad. The exterior of the kernel is longitudinally wrinkled and consists of convoluted dark brown perisperm, a lighter coloured endosperm and a small embryo. Nutmeg and mace are traded whole or in ground form.

Nutmeg was especially prized in the 17th century as it was thought to cure the plague. Many of the squabbles and wars, especially between the Dutch and the English, were provoked by the search for dominance over the areas of production of the seeds, the East Indies. Because of nutmeg, in the early 1660s the English seized (and kept) Manhattan, in what later became New York, in revenge for the Dutch capture of the island of Run, then the major source of the spice. To end hostilities, the Dutch ceded Manhattan to the English, in exchange for Run: the former eventually formed one of the world’s most prominent cities, while the latter failed to become re-established as a centre for spice production.

1. Constituents

The oleoresins are obtained by solvent extraction for use in flavouring processed food. Nutmeg oleoresins contain volatile (essential) oil ranging from 10 to 90%. Mace oleoresins contain 10-55% volatile oils. Nutmeg contains 25-40% fixed oil, extractable with solvents in the presence of steam, as a concentrate called nutmeg butter, which is highly aromatic orange-coloured fat. It consists of dry myristicin and high volatile oil content.

The organoleptic properties of both nutmeg and mace are similar and are principally determined by the constituents of aromatic essential oils. The oils have at least 40 constituents of which the major ones are shown in Table N.3. Monoterpene hydrocarbons predominate (e.g. sabinene, pinenes) followed by oxygenated monoterpenes and aromatic ethers (myristicin, safrole, elemicin) (see: Spices and flavours,Fig. S.44).

2. Uses

Dried nutmeg and mace are used directly as spices and also for their oils and oleoresins. Nutmeg butter is also used in a few pharmaceutical preparations. The pericarp of the fruit is also used in pickles and jellies. Nutmeg oil, a fresh, warm, spicy aromatic with a rich, sweet, spicy body note is used for flavouring processed food and soft drinks as well as for pharmaceutical formulations especially to combat bronchial disorders and to cure various gastro-intestinal complaints, psychological disorders and urinary diseases.

Nutmeg and mace are bitter, acrid, astringent, sweet, thermogenic, and have anti-inflammatory, anthelminthic, deodorant, carminative, expectorant, diuretic, antispasmodic, narcotic, anticonvulsant, antiseptic, aphrodisiac and other properties. They are used to treat vitiated conditions of kapha and vāta, inflammations, many ailments of the digestive system and other conditions. The burnt seed kernel powdered and mixed with buttermilk forms a very specific remedy for diarrhoea and vomiting in children. Nutmeg can be used as a hallucinogen and in excess quantities it is a narcotic.

Table N.3. Main constituents of essential oils in nutmeg and mace.


Nutmeg (% wt)

Mace (% wt)

Atta-ur-Rahman, M.I., Choudhary, A., Farooq, A., Ahmed, A., Demirci, B., Demirci, F. and Baser, K.H.C. (2000) Antifungal activities and essential oil constituents of some spices from Pakistan . Journal of the Chemical Society of Pakistan 22, 60-65.














































Devon, T.K. and Scott, A.I. (1975) A Hand Book of Naturally Occurring Compounds, Vol. 1. Academic Press, New York, USA.

Guenther, E. (1978) The Essential Oils, Vol. 2. Robert E. Krieger, New York, USA.

Peter, K.V. (ed.) (2001) Handbook of Herbs and Spices. Woodhead Publishing Co., Cambridge, UK.

Purseglove, J.W., Brown, E.G., Green, C.L. and Robbins, S.R.J. (1981) Spices, Vol. 1. Tropical Agriculture Series, Longman, New York, USA.

Weiss, E.A. (2002) Spice Crops. CAB International, Wallingford, UK.

Windholz, M. (1983) The Merck Index An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs and Biologicals, 10th edn. Merck and Co., Rathway, NJ, USA.

Peter, Kuruppacharil V.

Burbulis, Natalija
© CAB International 2006.

Related Articles

Full text Article Nutmeg
Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia

Nutmeg, also known as Myristica fragrans, originated in the tropical climate of the Moluccas (formerly the Spice Islands) and is the inner seed of t

Full text Article NUTMEG
Cambridge World History of Food

( see also MACE ) A kernel of the fruit of a tropical tree ( Myristica fragrans ), the dried nutmeg berry is called “nutmeg”because of its...

Full text Article nutmeg
Dictionary of Food: International Food and Cooking Terms from A to Z

The hard, dried, oval, shelled seed (up to 2 cm long) of which the outer covering is mace, from the fruit of an evergreen tree, Myristica...

See more from Credo