1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Spikenard

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SPIKENARD, or Nard (O. Fr. spiquenard, Lat. spica nardi, from spica, ear of corn, and Gr. νάρδος, Pers. nard, Skt. nalada, Indian spikenard, from Skt, nal, to smell), a celebrated perfume which seems to have formed one of the most durable aromatic ingredients in the costly unguents used by the Romans and Eastern nations. The ointment prepared from it (“ointment of pistic nard”[1]) is mentioned in the New Testament (Mark xiv. 3-5; John xii. 3-5) as being “very costly,” a pound of it being valued at more than 300 denarii (over £10). This appears to represent the prices then current for the best quality of nard, since Pliny (H.N. xii. 26) mentions that nard spikes reached as much as 100 denarii per lb, and, although he does not mention the price of nard ointment, he states (xiii. 2) that the “unguentum cinnamominum,” a similar preparation, ranged from 25 to 300 denarii according to its quality. Nard ointment also varied considerably in price from its liability to sophistication (Ibid. xii. 26, 27; xiii. 2). The genuine ointment[2] (unguentum nardinum sive foliatum) contained costus (the root of Saussurea lappa), amomum (the fruits of Amomum cardamomum), balm (the oleoresin of Balsamodendron opobalsamum) and myrrh, with Indian nard (Ibid. xiii. 2).

The exact botanical source of the true or Indian nard was long a matter of uncertainty, the descriptions given by ancient authors being somewhat vague, but it is now identified as Nardostachys jatamansi, a plant of the valerian order, the fibrous root-stocks or “spikes” of which are still collected in the mountains of Bhotan and Nepal. The name “spike” is applied apparently from its resemblance in shape to a spike or ear of bearded corn. The root is crowned by the bases of several stems, each about 2 in. or more in length and as thick as the finger. To these the fibrous tissue of former leaves adheres and gives them a peculiar bristly appearance. It is this portion that is chiefly collected.

Other and inferior varieties of nard are mentioned by Dioscorides and subsequent writers. Celtic nard, obtained from the Ligurian Alps and Istria, consisted of the roots of plants also belonging to the valerian order (Valeriana celtica and V. saxatilis). This was exported to the East and thence to Egypt, and was used in the preparation of baths. Mountain nard was collected in Cilicia and Syria, and is supposed to have consisted of the root of Valeriana tuberosa. The false nard of Dauphiné, used in later times, and still employed as a charm in Switzerland, is the root-stock of Allium victorialis. It presents a singular resemblance to the spikes of Indian nard, but is devoid of fragrance. It is remarkable that all the nards belong to the natural order Valerianaceae, the odour of valerian being considered disagreeable at the present day; that of Nardostachys jatamansi is intermediate between valerian and patchouli, although more agreeable than either.

The name “spikenard” has also been applied in later times to several plants. The spikenard of the United States is Aralia racemosa, and another species of the same genus, A. nudicaulis, or wild sarsaparilla, is known as “wild spikenard.” In the West Indies Hyptis suaveolens is called “spikenard,” and in Great Britain the name “ploughman's spikenard ” is given to Inula conuza.

  1. The meaning of the word “pistic” is uncertain, some rendering it “genuine,” others “liquid,” and others taking it for a local name.
  2. The use of alabaster vessels for preserving these fragrant unguents was customary at a very early period. Theophrastus (c. 314 B.C.) states that vessels of lead and alabaster were best for the purpose, on account of their density and coolness, and their power of resisting the penetration of the ointment into their substance. Pliny also recommends alabaster for ointment vases. For small quantities onyx vessels seem to have been used (Horace, Carm. iv. 12, lines 10, 17).