Spikenard, also called nard, nardin, and muskroot, is a class of aromatic amber-colored essential oil derived from Nardostachys jatamansi, a flowering plant in the honeysuckle family which grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, and India. The oil has been used over centuries as a perfume, a traditional medicine, or in religious ceremonies across a wide territory from India to Europe. Historically, the name nard has also referred to essential oils derived from other species including the closely related valerian genus, as well as Spanish lavender; these cheaper, more common plants have been used in perfume-making, and sometimes to adulterate true spikenard.

Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) essential oil


The name "nard" is derived from Latin nardus, from Ancient Greek νάρδος (nárdos). This word may ultimately derive either from Sanskrit नलद (nálada, Indian spikenard), or from Naarda, an ancient Assyrian city (possibly the modern town of Dohuk, Iraq).[1] The "spike" in the name refers to the inflorescence or flowering stem of the plant.


Nardostachys jatamansi is a flowering plant of the honeysuckle family that grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, and India. In bloom, the plant grows to about 1 meter (3 ft) in height and has small, pink, bell-shaped flowers. It is found at an altitude of about 3,000 to 5,000 m (9,800 to 16,400 ft). Its rhizomes can be crushed and distilled into an intensely aromatic, amber-colored essential oil with a thick consistency. Nard oil is used as a perfume, an incense, and as an herbal medicine.[2]


In ancient Rome, nardus was used to flavor wine, and occurs frequently in the recipes of Apicius.[3][4] During the early Roman empire, nardus was the main ingredient of a perfume (unguentum nardinum).[3]

Pliny's Natural History lists several species of nardus used in making perfume and spiced wine: Indian nard, a stinking nard called 'ozaenitidos' which is not used, a false nard ('pseudo-nard') with which true nard is adulterated, and several herbs local to Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean which are also called nardus, namely Syrian nard, Gallic nard, Cretan nard (also called 'agrion' or 'phun'), field nard (also called 'bacchar'), wild nard (also called 'asaron'), and Celtic nard. Celtic nard is the only species Pliny mentions which he does not describe when listing the species of nard in book 12 of Natural History suggesting it is synonymous with another species, probably with the species Pliny refers to as 'hirculus', a plant Pliny attests to growing in the same region as Gallic nard and which he says is used to adulterate Gallic nard. Both are widely assumed to be cultivars or varieties of Valeriana celtica.[5][6][7]

Indian nard refers to Nardostachys jatamansi, stinking nard possibly to Allium victorialis, false nard to Lavandula stoechas, Syrian nard to Cymbopogon nardus, Gallic nard to Valeriana celtica, Cretan nard to Valeriana italica (syn. V. dioscoridis, V. tuberosa), and wild nard to Asarum europaeum. Field nard, or 'bacchar', has not been conclusively identified and must not be confused with species now called "baccharises" referring to species native to North America.[5][6][7]


Coat of arms of Pope Francis. According to the Vatican, the plant (to the right of the star) is a spikenard and symbolises St Joseph.

Spikenard is mentioned in the Bible being used for its fragrance.

And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head.

— Mark 14:3 KJV

While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof. A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts. My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of Engedi.

— Song of Songs 1:12–14 KJV

In the Hispanic iconographic tradition of the Catholic Church, the spikenard is used to represent Saint Joseph. [8] The Vatican has said that the coat of arms of Pope Francis includes the spikenard in reference to Saint Joseph.[8][9][10]

Nard (Italian nardo) is also mentioned in the Inferno of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy:


  1. ^ The origin of most of these quotes is Dr. William Thomas Fernie, in his book Herbal Simples (Bristol Pub., second edition, 1897), page 298: 'By the Greeks the name Nardus is given to Lavender, from Naarda, a city of Syria near the Euphrates, and many persons call the plant "Nard." St. Mark mentions this as Spikenard, a thing of great value. In Pliny's time, blossoms of the Nardus sold for a hundred Roman denarii (or L.3 2s. 6d.) the pound. This Lavender or Nardus was called Asarum by the Romans, because it was not used in garlands or chaplets. It was formerly believed that the asp, a dangerous kind of viper, made Lavender its habitual place of abode, so that the plant had to be approached with great caution.'
  2. ^ Dalby, Andrew (2000), Dangerous Tastes: the story of spices, London: British Museum Press, ISBN 978-0-7141-2720-0 (US ISBN 0-520-22789-1) pp. 83–88
  3. ^ a b ""Nardinus"". Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary at perseus.tufts.edu.
  4. ^ "Apicius; De Re Coquinaria". Nemeton. Retrieved 5 November 2011.
  5. ^ a b "Naturalis Historia; Book 12". Perseus. Retrieved 29 October 2020.
  6. ^ a b "Naturalis Historia; Book 14". Perseus. Retrieved 29 October 2020.
  7. ^ a b "Naturalis Historia; Book 21". Perseus. Retrieved 29 October 2020.
  8. ^ a b "Lo Stemma di Papa Francesco". L'Osservatore Romano (Vatican website). Retrieved 18 March 2013. (In Italian: il fiore di nardo indica San Giuseppe ... Nella tradizione iconografica ispanica, infatti, San Giuseppe è raffigurato con un ramo di nardo in mano, translates as "the spikenard represents Saint Joseph ... In the Hispanic iconographic tradition, in fact, St Joseph is depicted with a branch of spikenard in his hand").
  9. ^ "Vatican releases Pope Francis' coat of arms, motto and ring". The Daily Telegraph. 18 March 2013. Archived from the original on 21 March 2013. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  10. ^ "Pope stresses simplicity, ecumenism in inaugural Mass plans". National Catholic Reporter. 18 March 2013. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  11. ^ tr. H. F. Cary) (Dante Alighieri (1845). The Vision, Or, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise of Dante Alighieri. D. Appleton & Company. p. 171.)

Further readingEdit

  • Dalby, Andrew, "Spikenard" in Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, 2nd ed. by Tom Jaine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-19-280681-5).