Abstract In this study, the effects of nanoscale ZnO reinforcement on the room temperature tensile and compressive response of monolithic Mg were studied. Experimental observations indicated strength properties improvement due to nanoscale ZnO addition. A maximum increment in tensile yield strength by ∼55% and compressive yield strength by 90% (with reduced tension–compression asymmetry) was achieved when 0.8vol.% ZnO nanoparticles were added to Mg. While the fracture strain values under tensile loads were found to increase significantly (by ∼95%, in case of Mg–0.48ZnO), it remained largely unaffected under compressive loads. The microstructural characteristics studied in order to comprehend the mechanical response showed significant grain refinement due to grain boundary pinning effect of nano-ZnO particles which resulted in strengthening of Mg. Texture analysis using X-ray and EBSD methods indicated weakening of basal fibre texture in Mg/ZnO nanocomposites which contributed towards the reduction in tension–compression yield asymmetry and enhancement in tensile ductility when compared to pure Mg.