Black Cumin: One of Life's Tiny Treasures

Packed with health and flavor, black cumin's small, triangular seed graces the garden with vivid blossoms.


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Sidebar: A Seed of Many Names 

In the black seed is the medicine for every disease except death.
—Arab proverb 

Perhaps you've enjoyed its flowers in the garden, but have you indulged in its flavor in the kitchen or realized the potential health benefits of black seed or black cumin? This annual herb is cultivated in India, Bangladesh, Turkey, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean basin and has been used through the ages for culinary and medicinal purposes. For centuries, black seed has been used in the Middle East and Asia for its medicinal properties, but its use isn't limited to that area. You'll find references to it in the Bible, and the seeds used ground as a seasoning like pepper in many culinary creations. Now scientists have isolated some of its compounds and are gaining a better understanding of these traditional uses.

Identity Crisis

The angular seeds look like kissing cousins of onion seeds and black poppy because of their color and similar fruit capsule. Black cumin also has been mistaken for the umbellifers caraway, fennel and coriander because of its leaf shape, and it also resembles common or Indian cumin (Cuminum nigrum and C. cyminu). Botanically, however, black cumin, a member of the buttercup family, Ranunculus, is unrelated to these plants.

The Nigella Family

The three most important varieties of black cumin are:

1) Nigella sativa, true black cumin, grows to a height of 6 to 12 inches; bears milky white apical blossoms that turn bluish-green near the tip, containing a coarse ball-like fruit capsule that develops after the plant blossoms; and a crown of five protruding beak-like spikes. Ground nigella seeds emit a fragrance vaguely similar to fennel, anise or nutmeg, which some compare to camphor or cajaput. They taste slightly bitter, spicy and piquant and have been used as a substitute for caraway and black pepper in bread making and at the table.

2) N. damascena, Turkish black cumin, garden black cumin or Damask fennel, is an ornamental that grows to a height of 21/2 feet with an upright stem and dark-green, finely slit leaves with long, thin tips reminiscent of dill leaves. The blossoms are surrounded by five similarly slit leaves. The plant's black, triangular, horizontally wrinkled seeds resemble N. sativa but taste milder and smell more pleasant. Some liken the flavor to nutmeg. These seeds make a better seasoning for sweet baked goods, fruit salad or an ingredient in snuff.

3) N. arvensis, field black cumin (also known as wild black cumin, oat or horse black cumin), grows just 8 inches tall. Its upright, hairless stem boasts bush-like branches with alternating lacinated leaves and apical blossoms bearing a light-blue five-leaved flower cup rimmed with greenish strips. Unlike the other two species, the three to five leaves of the seed capsule reach only halfway up the stem and are neither coarse nor puffed into a ball, but are long with little horns. Similar in taste to N. sativa, the seeds of this species are used as a peppery spice, as a medicine and as a fumigant to ward off creeping vermin, poisonous insects and snakes.

Where Black Seed Blooms

Native to western Asia, southeastern Europe and the Middle East, N. sativa is cultivated around the world and grows well in most gardens but doesn't sustain frost well.

All of the nigellas grow well in Zones 3 through 10. To add this annual to your garden, sprinkle seeds thinly in late spring over a prepared bed of light garden loam in a sunny spot. Pat the seeds in gently and keep moist but not wet.

Although they're more successful sown in the ground, you may want to start black seed indoors and transplant when threat of frost has passed. To do so, sow seeds in a container of moistened soilless mix, such as perlite or vermiculite, in early spring. Barely cover the seeds with the mix. Cover the container with plastic wrap and store at 65 to 70 degrees. When you begin to see growth, move the container to a sunny window, pot plants up as they grow, gradually getting them accustomed to being outside, and then transplant them in the garden.

You may see flowers as early as June or July, and the plants should flower until late summer. The blossoms are long-lasting, so use them in cut flower arrangements. When the pale blue flowers have passed, deadhead to encourage blooming all summer or leave them on to see the striped fruit, or seed heads. These also supply an interesting garden accent and can be used in dried flower arrangements.

Historical Uses 

Cultivation of black seed has been traced back more than 3,000 years to the kingdom of the Assyrians and ancient Egyptians. A bottle of black cumin oil was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, perhaps to protect the ruler in the afterlife.

Black cumin was a vital ingredient in many Egyptian dishes. Physicians of the pharaohs used the seeds as a digestive aid after opulent feasts and as a remedy for colds, headaches, toothaches, infections, inflammatory disorders and allergies. Black seed oil has been a beauty secret of women since ancient times. Queen Nefertiti, praised for her exquisite complexion, was an avid user of black seed oil.

Pliny the Elder crushed black seeds, mixed them with vinegar and honey, and applied the paste to snake bites and scorpion stings.

Black cumin and its oil have been used to purge parasites and worms, detoxify, ameliorate amoebic dysentery, shigellosis, abscesses, old tumors, ulcers of the mouth and rhinitis. Recent research confirms these uses for humans, dogs, cats and horses.

Modern Research

More than 200 university studies conducted since 1959 attest to the effectiveness of traditional uses of black seed. The essential oil of N. sativa seeds is antimicrobial and successful in the ratification of intestinal worms. In vitro studies in Jordan and the United States have shown its volatile oil to be anti-leukemic. Other studies suggest this same active ingredient may serve as an immune-system booster and is proven effective in treating asthma and whooping cough.

Black seed is a complex substance of more than 100 compounds, some of which have not yet been identified or studied. A combination of fatty acids, volatile oils and trace elements are believed to contribute to its effectiveness. As for all the benefits packed into this tiny seed waiting to be discovered, ongoing research will have to judge.

Applying the Oil

Numerous external and internal applications exist (consult a medicinal herb reference book or an herbalist for specifics). Black seed is included in recipes for everything from teas, cough syrups and wound salves to compresses, massage oil combinations and products for internal use. Topical black seed preparations, such as soaps, lotions, shampoo, scalp treatments, acne gels and bath salts, are available for those who do not wish to make them (see source list to right).

Because the oil has a strong flavor, it is best mixed with honey. Herbal teas also help dilute its strength. Black seed honey mixtures also may be purchased and used to make instant tea.

Plant and Seed Resources

Goodwin Creek Gardens
P.O. Box 83
Williams, OR 97544
(800) 846-7359
Carries seeds of Nigella damascena and N. hispanica.

Nichols Garden Nursery
1190 Old Salem Rd. NE
Albany, OR 97321
(800) 422-3985
Carries seeds of Nigella sativa.

Richters Herbs
357 Hwy. 47
Goodwood, Ontario, Canada L0C 1A0
(905) 640-6677
Carries seeds of Nigella damascena in small packets and in bulk.

Black Seed Product Sources

Black Seed USA
P.O. Box 10319
Torrance, CA 90505
(800) 909-0906

Caravane Tresor
Nooruddin OnLine, LLC,
626 Abbot Ave.
Daly City, CA 94014
(888) 546-7898

Mountain Rose Herbs
P.O. Box 50220
Eugene, OR 97405
(800) 879-3337

Sweet Sunnah, Black Seed Herbals Inc.
25 Albion St.
Liberty, NY 12754
(866) 786-6244

Theramune Nutritionals
2495 Eastgate Pl., Ste. A
Snellville, GA 30078
(800) 241-9138

Recommended Reading

Black Cumin: The Magical Egyptian Herb for Allergies, Asthma, and Immune Disorders (Inner Traditions, 2000) by Peter Schleicher, M.D., and Mohamed Saleh, M.D.

Rachel Albert-Matesz, a frequent contributor to, lives in Phoenix.