Nigella sativa (Jansen, 1981)

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Cuminum cyminum
Jansen, Spices and medicinal plants in Ethiopia
Nigella sativa (Jansen, 1981)
Ocimum basilicum

2.7 Nigella sativa L.

Nigella’: diminutive of 'niger' ( = 'black'), used like a female substantive (’Nigella’), meaning 'blackish'; the name hints at the black seeds.

sativa’: derived from Latin 'serere': 'to sow, to plant, to cultivate'; grammatically the root of 'serere' is 'sat', so the meaning is 'sown, planted, cultivated'.

Linnaeus, Sp. Pl. ed. 1: p. 534 (1753).

Type: 'Habitat in Aegypto, Creta'. ’Nigella petalis subtricuspidatis foliis subpilosis’ (specimen LINN 700.4, lecto.!).


  • Nigella cretica Miller, Gard. Dict. 4 (1768).
  • Nigella indica Roxb., Journ. bot. 4: p. 203 (1814).
  • Nigella sativa L. var. hispidula Boiss., Ann. Sei. Nat. 16: p. 360 (1841).
  • Nigella sativa L. var. brachyloba Boiss., FI. Orient. 1: p. 68 (1867).
  • Nigella arvensis Auct. non L.: Terracciano (1897).


  • 1824: De Candolle, Prodr. 1: p. 48-50. (tax.)
  • 1867: Boissier, Flora Orient. 1: p. 65-71. (tax.)
  • 1888: Prantl, Beitrage zur Morphologie und Systematik der Ranunculaceen, Bot. Jahrb. 9: p. 244. (tax.)
  • 1891: Prantl, Ranunculaceae, in: Engler & Prantl, Die nat. Pflanzenfam., ed. 1, B. 3, 2: p. 57. (tax.)
  • 1895: Engler, Pflanzenw. Ost-Afrikas & Nachbargebiete, B, Nutzpflanzen: p. 280. (use)
  • 1895: Brand, Monographie der Gattung Nigella, Helios 13(3): p. 33-34. (tax.)
  • 1904: Suzzi, Le piante oleifere dell'Eritrea, Bollettino Agricolo e commerciale delle colonia Eritrea, 2(8/9): p. 290. (chem.)
  • 1912: Chiovenda, Osservazioni botaniche, agrarie ed industriali, Monog. rapp. col. 24: p. 31. (use)
  • 1912: Muschler, A manual flora of Egypt, 1: p. 369-371. (tax.)
  • 1913: Kostlan, Die Landwirtschaft in Abessinien 1, Beih. Tropenpflanzer 14: p. 232. (agric.)


  • 1933: Redgrove, Spices and condiments: p. 324-328. (agric. + use)
  • 1934: Bois, Les plantes alimentaires chez tous les peuples et à travers les âges, 3, Plantes à épices, à aromates, à condiments: p. 249-250. (use)
  • 1946: Baldrati, Piante officinali dell'Africa orientale, Centro Studi Colon. 32: p. 99. (use)
  • 1950: Baldrati, Trattato delle coltivazioni tropicali e sub-tropicali: p. 204-205. (agric.)
  • 1953: Cufodontis, Enumeratio, Bull. Jard. Bot. État Brux. 23(3/4), suppl.: p. 106. (tax.)
  • 1957: Mensier, Dictionnaire des huiles végétales, Encycl. Biol. 52: p. 393-394. (chem.)
  • 1963: Siegenthaler, Useful plants of Ethiopia, Exp. Stn. Bull. 14: p. 19. (use)
  • 1964: Maire, Flore de l'Afrique du Nord, 11: p. 41-42. (tax.)
  • 1965: Davis, Ranunculaceae, in: Flora of Turkey, 1: p. 103. (tax.)
  • 1968: Tutin, Ranunculaceae, in: Flora Europaea 1: p. 209-210. (tax.)
  • 1970: Krasheninnikov, Nigella, in: Flora of the USSR (Engl. ed.), 7: p. 50-57. (tax.)
  • 1971: Agrawala et al., Galactagogue action of Nigella sativa, Indian J. Med. Sei. 25(8): p. 535-537. (chem.)
  • 1973: Salama, Sterols in the seed oil of N. sativa, Planta Medica, 24: p. 375-377. (chem.)
  • 1974: Damboldt & Zimmermann, Ranunculaceae, in: Hegi, Illustr. Fl. Mittel-Eur., ed. 2, B. 3, 3: p. 111-115. (tax. + use)
  • 1976: Amare Getahun, Some common medicinal and poisonous plants used in Ethiopian folk medicine: p. 47. (use)
  • 1977: Lang, Vergleichend morphologische und entwicklungsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen am Gynocium einiger Nigella Arten, Bot. Jahrb. Syst. 98, 3: p. 289-335. (bot.)

Local names

  • tukur azmut, tikur azmud, asmut (Amarinia)
  • habasudu, abosuda, nugi guracha, gurati, gurra (Gallinia)
  • aaf (Kefa)
  • awosetta (Tigrinia)

Trade names

  • garden Nigelle, black cummin (English)
  • Nigelle cultivée, quatre épices, toute-épice, cumin noir, patte d'araignée (French)
  • Schwarzkümmel, Narden-Samen, Römischer Kümmel (German).

Geographic distribution

N. sativa is most probably indigenous to the Mediterranean region. In Ethiopia, it is sometimes found as an escape, although possibly it could belong to the indigenous flora. It is cultivated in various parts of the world: Central and Southern Europe, the USSR, Northern Africa, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and India (Cufodontis, 1953; Tutin, 1964).

In Ethiopia, the seeds may be found on every market. Small scale cultivation is widespread. Cultivation as a crop is reported from the provinces of Begemdir (Dembia, Gondar), Shoa (Alem-Gena), Bale (Dinsho), Hararge (Chercher Highlands) and Kefa (Jimma Region) (Baldrati, 1950; Cufodontis, 1953; Centr. Stat. Off., 1970).


An erect annual, profusely branched herb, up to 70 cm high, with a well-developed yellow-brown taproot, with many sideroots.

  • Stem: subterete, ribbed, sometimes hollow when old, puberulous, light- to darkgreen. Leaves alternate, estipulate; petiole strongly broadened at base, light-green, only present in basal leaves, ca 1-6 cm long, ribbed, puberulous; blade up to 7 x 5 cm in outline, bi-, tri-, or even more-pinnately dissected into short, thin, sublinear,


divergent, slightly pilose lobes, which normally are green but sometimes turn reddish-brown.
  • Inflorescence: flowers terminal, solitary; pedicel (2-)4-8(-11) cm long, puberulous, ribbed; all flower parts inserted on a pale-yellow, fleshy, depressed-conical receptacle, ca 2 mm in diam., visible as an orange to brown coloured ring below the carpels in fruit.
  • Calyx: sepals 5, ovate, 13-17 x 6-12 mm, top obtuse, tapering at base into a 2-3 mm long, 3-veined claw, papillose inside, papillose to scarcely pilose outside, pale-green when young, sometimes partly reddish, turning pale-blue to white on the ventral side and looking petaloid when older, the dorsal side remaining green or reddish-green.
  • Corolla: petals (6-)8(-11), nectariferous, with a short, ca 1.5-2 mm long, glabrous claw; the blade, perpendicular to the claw, divided into a narrow ventral lobe and a larger, deeply cleft dorsal lobe, together enclosing a nectar-pocket; dorsal lobe ca 3.5-5.5 x 2.5-4.5 mm in outline, split at top into two, ca 2-4 mm long, ovate, minutely papillose parts with a light-green callous thickening at their top, ventrally scarcely pilose, with an upward directed, transverse, light-green tubercle of ca 1 mm wide in the middle and with two transverse, violet lines, limitating a whitish part between the tubercle and the apex, which part curves backward at anthesis, becoming parallel to the claw; a violet nectar-pocket of ca 1.5-2 x 1 mm is situated between the top of the claw and the split, with a cup-like callous thickened base and a horse-shoe-shaped, ventral, puberulous rim on which fits the puberulous-rimmed dorsal base of the ventral lobe as a lid; ventral lobe oblong, ca 2.5-4 mm long, minutely papillose, violet at base, tapering into a long, narrow, white top.
  • Androecium: stamens in (6-)8(-10) groups of 3-7 stamens each, seldom with some staminodes, each group forming a vertical spiralloid line on the receptacle; filaments linear, 3-9 mm long, glabrous, violet- to pale-blue; anthers 2-celled, basifixed, ca 2 x 1 mm, yellow, with a conspicuous, acuminate, light-green connective, dehiscing lengthwise by two slits; during the development of the protandrous flower the stamens turn from a vertical position (young, short) to a horizontal position (old, long).
  • Gynoecium: lobed, composed of 3-7 green, white-granular carpels, almost connate to apex, together forming a compound ovary of ca 4-9 mm length, whose free, ca 5-9 mm long, ribbed, beak-like stigmas are twisted and reflexed at anthesis, becoming suberect again in fruit.
  • Fruit: a capsule, greyish to yellow-brown at maturity, many-seeded, ca 6-16 mm long and 5-12 mm in diam., with persistent, sub-erect stigmas of about the same length as the capsule; each carpel opening by an apical slit into the base of the stigma or slightly beyond (in this case also splitting the remaining stigma at base).
  • Seeds: 3(4)-sided, obpyramidal, ca 3 mm long and up to 1.5-2 mm in diam., rugose-tuberculate, dark-black, with a carrot-like smell; embryo minute, embedded in copious, greyish-white, fatty endosperm.
  • Seedling: germination epigeal; taproot white to light-brown, with many side-roots; hypocotyl ca 1 mm long, white to light-brown; cotyledons opposite, thin, elliptic to oblanceolate, entire, ca 1.5-2.5 x 0.5 cm, top obtuse, base attenuate to petiole-like, glabrous to minutely papillose, light-green; epicotyl absent or very short; stem


Fig. 8. Nigella sativa L. - 1. habit (⅔x); 2. flower, top view (1 x); 3. sepal (2x); 4. petal, side view (4x); 5. petal, front view (4x); 6. petal without ventral lobe (6x); 7. ventral lobe of petal (6x); 8. arrangement of stamen groups (4x); 9. fruit (1x); 10. dehiscing fruit, top view (2 x); 11. seed (6x); 12. detail of testa (18x); 13. seedling (⅔x). - 1. PJ 1690; 2. PJ 150 (spirit mat.); 3-8. PJ 195 (spirit mat.); 9-12. PJ 2871; 13. PJ 30 (spirit mat.).


ribbed, puberulous; next leaves alternate, with a papery, at base broadening petiole; the first non-seed-leaf usually with a three-lobed blade, subsequent leaves becoming more divided.

Taxonomic notes

(1) Linnaeus (1753) described Nigella sativa in Sp. Pl.: ’Nigella petalis subtricuspidatis foliis subpilosis’, and he referred to Hort. Ups. 154, Mat. med. 271, Boehm. lips. 173, Nigella flore minore simplici candido Bauh. pin. 145, Melanthium sativum Cam. epit. 551 and Nigella flore minore pleno & albo Bauh. pin. 146. He copied the description of his Hort. Ups. 154 (1748). In Hort. Ups. Linnaeus remarked about this species: 'Hospitatur sub dio, annua. Semina distinctissima sapore & odore fragrantissima; folia vix manifeste pilosa, ut & caulis; petala tridentata apice, sed laterales dentes obliterati'. In the LINN herbarium, three specimens are present under Nigella sativa. Specimen LINN No 700.4 consists of some stems, leaves, one flower and two fruits and on the sheet the (Linnaean) inscription: ’Nigella sativa se(min)e odorato’ and 'HU'. As 'HU' indicates that this specimen originated from a plant cultivated at Uppsala, it might be the specimen Linnaeus based his description upon in his Hort. Ups. (1748). I designate as lectotype of the species Nigella sativa L. specimen LINN 700.4.

(2) Mainly on seed colour, branching habit and hairiness, later authors have distinguished different forms or varieties within N. sativa. De Candolle (1824) adopted three varieties: var. cretica ('stylis flore longioribus'); var. citrina ('seminibus luteis, floribus plenis'); var. indica ('caule foliis subglabris'). Boissier (1867) had one variety: var. brachyloba ('ramosior, hirsutior, laciniae abbreviatae confertae; capsula densius verrucosa'). The correct name for var. brachyloba Boiss. is var. hispidula Boiss., because Boissier described in 1841 var. hispidula Boiss. (Ann. Sc. Nat.: p. 360, 1841) which in 1867 he cited in synonymy to var. brachyloba Boiss.

Brand (1895) distinguished two formas ('varieties'): f. hispidula Boiss. ('planta maior ramosior, hirsuta; foliorum laciniis abbreviatis; capsulis densius verrucosis'); f. citrina DC ('forma culta floribus plenis valde dubia: seminibus luteis'). Except for var. citrina DC with yellow seeds, which Boissier (1867) did not mention and Brand (1895) considered as doubtful, the other infraspecific taxa cannot clearly be distinguished from one another, and are, in my opinion, infraspecific modifications that do not merit taxonomie segregation. Plants grown in the greenhouse at Wageningen would fit N. sativa var. sativa (if distinguished), but plants from the same seed, grown in Ethiopia, would better fit var. hispidula Boiss. As these variations are caused by the environment only, they do not justify an infraspecific subdivision of the Ethiopian material. Recent authors like Tutin (1964), Davis (1965), Krasheninnikov (1970) and Damboldt & Zimmermann (1974) do not accept a subdivision either. Davis (1965) considered var. hispidula Boiss. (= var. brachyloba Boiss.) as a synonym of N. sativa L.

(3) Brand (1895) divided the genus Nigella into three subgenera based on the dehiscence of the fruits. According to Brand (1895, p. 183 & p. 194), N. sativa belongs to the subgenus Nigellina with 'Früchte nur aussen aufspringend', 'in der Verlängerung des Griffels' (= dorsally). Lang (1977), however, stated that the fruits


of N. sativa dehisce only ventrally and not dorsally, and concluded that Brand's division was not correct. For the Ethiopian material, neither Brand's nor Lang's statement is correct. The fruits dehisce normally only at the top of each carpel (= ventrally), i.e. with a slit from stigma-base to fruit-axis, but sometimes dehiscence includes partial splitting of the stigma and the dorsal rib of the carpel.

(4) The only difference found between plants raised at Wageningen and in Ethiopia was in the habit: slender and sparsely branched at Wageningen, more robust and profusely branched in Ethiopia.

(5) One other Nigella species was found in Ethiopia: specimen WP 4900 is Nigella damascena L. As this specimen was collected at the experimental station of Debre Zeit, it is probably a recent introduction. N. damascena is easily distinguished from N. sativa by its leaf-like involucre around flower and fruit. Because the flower of this plant is hidden by the involucre, the British call it: 'love-in-the-mist'.

(6) The description is based on the following specimens:

Arussi Baie Begemdir Gojam Hararge Illubabor Kef a Shoa Sidamo Tigre Wollega Wollo Grown at Sire market: SL 141; Robi market: SL 1235. Goba market: SL 1219; Goro market: SL 1254. Debarek market: WP 4970; Gondar market: WP 4990, SL 928. Dejen market: SL 762; Elias market: SL 801; Lumane market: SL 747; Telili market: SL 814. Alemaya, College of Agriculture, cultivated: PJ 1227-1267, PJ 1322-1323, PJ 1325-1329, PJ 1477, PJ 1583-1591, PJ 1682-1705, PJ 1834-1839, PJ 1882-1894, PJ 2025-2026, PJ 2526, PJ 2708-2756, PJ 2870-2908, PJ 2940-2944, PJ 3060-3066, PJ 3186, PJ 3993-3995, PJ 4037-4040, PJ4042-4043, PJ4057, PJ4338-4341, PJ4509-4510, PJ4790, PJ4824, PJ5133, PJ 5895-5897, PJ 6450-6453; Alemaya garden: WP 710, WP 713, WP 1805, WP 2333, WP 3007; Alemaya market: WP 24, Bos 8066, PJ 5909; Asbe Teferi market: SL 5, SL 460; Asse bot market: SL 701; Bedeno market: SL 331; Bedeisa market: SL 674; Chelenko market: SL 267; Deder market: SL 390; Dire Dawa market: WP 112, Bos 8359, PJ 1040, PJ 1042; Feddis market: SL 188; Gelemso market: SL 626; Harar market: WP 66, Bos 8040; Jijiga market: SL 364; Karra market: SL 585, SL 593; Moulu market: SL452, SL454; Waichu market: SL 507. Djemezo market: SL 1438, SL 1453; Gambella market: PJ 5103; Metu market: SL 1491. Agaro market: SL 76; Bonga market: SL 1417, PJ 2209; Chena market: SL 1423; Jimma, Inst. Agr. Res.: PJ 5850; Jimma market: WP 3291, SL 119A, Bos 8624. Ambo market: PJ 1216; Bulbulla market: PJ 3903, PJ 3908; Kuyera market: SL 1207; Melkassa, cultivated (garden IAR Nazareth): PJ 2426-2429, PJ 3594-3597, PJ 4713-4716; Robi market: SL 1158~ Shashemerre market: SL 1306, SL 1308. Adillo market: PJ 3665; Awas~a market: SL 1320; Kebre Mengist market: SL 1346; Negele market: SL 1395. Adishow market: SL 1025; Axum market: SL 953. Dembidolo market: SL 1531; Ghimbi market: PJ 1175, PJ 1179, PJ 1189. Bati market: SL 1061; Dessie market: SL 1093; Haik market: SL 1123; Kombolcha market: SL 958. Wageningen F. van Gogh (not numbered), PJ 1-45, PJ 149-172, PJ 194-207, PJ 210-214, PJ 237-238, PJ 295-297, PJ 316-326, PJ 372-389, PJ 506-537, PJ 547-554, PJ 564-571, PJ 584-586, PJ 600-602, PJ 604-605, PJ 722-727, WP 7355-7357, J. van Veldhuizen 14-16.


The following specimens, originating from Ethiopia, were seen (all at FT): I. Baldrati 2178 (18-5-1916, Asmara), 3771 (16-10-1916, Eritrea), 4865 (8-4-1916, Asmara); P. Benedetto 195 (August 1938, Dembidollo, Sa jo); R. Bricchetti 231 (1889, Harar); E. Chiovenda 100 (1909, Gondar); R. Corradi 7500 (8-24 Sept. 1939, Mega); J. B. Gillett 14585 (3-12-1952, Aghere Mariam); R. Guidotti 763 (15-2-1936, Adoa); A. Pappi 4933 (28-4-1902, Ad-Rassi, Eritrea), s.n. (25-6-1903, Eritrea), 264 (6-7-1903, Eritrea); G. Piovano 19 (1937, Addis Ababa); E. Taschdjian 148 (21-1 0-1935, Kachissy market, Shoa), 148 (29-12-1935, Godja, lake Tana).


N. sativa is described as a hardy annual, growing on all kinds of soils (Redgrove, 1933; Baldrati, 1950). In Ethiopia, it is cultivated as a rainfed crop in the highlands (ca 1500-2500m) (Chiovenda, 1912; Kostlan, 1913). The seeds are typical dark germinators and they seem to germinate better at high temperatures (Damboldt & Zimmermann, 1974). N. sativa is most probably, like most other Nigella species, an insect pollinated species with protandrous flowers. As the stigmas twist and turn down umbrella-like, self-pollination is possible in older flowers (Damboldt & Zimmermann, 1974). In Ranunculaceae a similar floral biology is encountered also in Aconitum (de Wit, pers. comm. 1979).


N. sativa is easily raised from seed, but is difficult to transplant (Redgrove, 1933). For cultivation as a crop, the seed is broadcast after the first rains in a well prepared soil at a rate of 20 kg/ha (Baldrati, 1950; Zemedu, undated).

Photograph 13. Nigella sativa, flower, PJ 1216.


In Ethiopia sowing dates vary from the beginning of July (Chercher Highlands, Bale) to September (Begemdir). Weeding and sometimes thinning are necessary. Harvest takes place in the dry season (November-March). As the seeds are easily released from the dehiscent fruits, harvesting before complete dryness of the fruits is advised. The seeds come loose easily with light threshing. To conserve the spicy essence, the seeds must be stored dry (Baldrati, 1950). Under normal dry circumstances (room temperature), the seeds keep their viability for at least two years.

In Ethiopia, Nigella is more often grown in combination with other crops such as barley and wheat (Baldrati, 1950; Zemedu, undated). At Alemaya (alt. 2000 m) seeds germinated about 14 days after sowing. The plants flowered ca 100 days later and harvest was possible ca 150 days after sowing. Plants grown in a greenhouse at Wageningen had a much quicker cycle, harvest being possible ca 100 days after sowing.

In Ethiopia no serious diseases or pests were observed, although one empty carpel in a fruit is not exceptional. Most probably the young seeds are eaten by a borer larva. Stewart & Dagnatchew (1967) reported that a leaf spot in N. sativa, observed in Shoa Province, is caused by Cercospora nigellae Hollos.


Culinary uses

N. sativa is grown for its seeds. The seeds have a strong, pungent, carrot-like smell and an aromatic somewhat acrid oily taste. They have been used as a spice from early times (Lenz, 1859). Whole or crushed seeds are used in or on bread in India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Turkey and the USSR. As a flavouring agent in vinegar, as a constituent of 'curry', or as a substitute for pepper in cooking, they are used in many eastern countries (Lindley & Moore, 1866; Redgrove, 1933; Bois, 1934; Baldrati, 1950; Krasheninnikov, 1970; Damboldt & Zimmermann, 1974). Some grains in a spoon with honey seems to be a much appreciated aperitif for Arabs (Baldrati, 1950; Lemordant, 1960, 1971).

In Ethiopia, the seeds are used in the preparation of bread, Capsicum pepper sauce, curry sauce, 'wot' and local beverages. The seeds are first slightly roasted, ground, sieved, and ground a second time to powder. Nigella seeds in wheaten bread are often replaced by other spices, as Nigella seeds colour the bread black. For the preparation of the Capsicum pepper sauce, Nigella seed powder may be added, up to 30% of the weight of the Capsicum powder, to reduce the pungency of the pepper and to add flavour and colour. In the 'wot' sauce the Nigella powder is added at a late stage of preparation. For local alcoholic beverages like 'areke' and 'katikala', Nigella seeds form an ingredient alongside other spices like black pepper, Aframomum corrorima and ginger (Kostlan, 1913; Zemedu, undated; Asrat, 1962; Telahun, 1962; Siegenthaler, 1963; Amare, 1976).

Medicinal uses

In Ethiopia, Nigella seeds are supposed to relieve headaches. Seeds are mixed with melted butter, wrapped in a piece of cloth and sniffed (Telahun, 1962; Asrat, 1962; Amare, 1976). According to Lemordant (1960, 1971) seeds are also used to induce


Photograph 14. Nigella sativa, fruits and seeds (3x), PJ 2891.

abortions. In the folk medicine of other countries Nigella seeds are said to stimulate lactation, menstruation and urination and to have anthelmintic and carminative properties (Lindley & Moore, 1866; Redgrove, 1933; Bois, 1934; Lemordant, 1960, 1971; Damboldt & Zimmermann, 1974). Agrawala et al. (1971) proved that the lipid part of the ether-extracted seeds really had a galactagogue action in rats. The seeds are said to protect woollen goods and linen against insects (Lindley & Moore, 1866; Redgrove, 1933).

Chemical composition

According to Agren & Gibson (1968), 100 g edible Ethtopian Nigella seeds contained the following:

moisture (g) 6.6 calcium (mg) 519
nitrogen (g) 2.2 phosphorus (mg) 594
protein (g) 13.8 iron (mg) 17
fat (g) 32.2 β-carotene equiv. (mg) 0
total carbohydrate (g) 39.9 thiamine (mg) 0.62
fibre (g) 16.4 niacin (mg) 9.5
ash (g) 7.5


According to Gessner & Orzechowski (1974), Nigella sativa seeds contain ca 1.5% melanthine, 0.5-1.5% of a bad-smelling essential oil and 30-40% fatty oil, the bitter substance nigellin and tannin. Melanthine is a very active fish-poison and it is very toxic for other animals too.

The fatty oil component is composed of: stearic acid (2.4% ), palmitic acid (6.3%), myristic acid (0.3%), oleic acid (44.5%), and linoleic acid (36.0%) (Mensier, 1957). In 1904, Suzzi isolated 23.91% oleic acid from the fatty oil of Ethiopian Nigella seeds.

According to Salama (1973), 100 g oil from N. sativa seeds from Sudan, contained 510 mg sterol, whose composition was cholesterol 2.1 %, campesterol 14.6%, stigmasterol 17.2%, β-sitosterol 63.1 %, α-spinasterol 3.7%.