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Known as the “black seed” plant, Nigella sativa has been lauded as a miracle herb for centuries, and has been used to treat a multitude of ailments. Modern scientific research confirms its efficacy in terms of treating numerous diseases, including cancer.

The black seeds and oil extracted from Nigella sativa have been used to treat numerous diseases and adverse health conditions for centuries. It’s effectiveness as an anti-cancer treatment is backed by scientific research and clinical trials. But what is Nigella sativa, and how does it fight cancer?

What is Nigella sativa?

Nigella sativa (see above) is a pretty plant in the ranunculaceae family that has delicate pale blue and white flowers, feathery green foliage, and black capsule-like fruit pods that contain numerous small black seeds. These seeds, which resemble black onion seed, are used in Middle Eastern cooking and sometimes as an Indian spice, either fresh or dry-roasted. They are also often used in spice mixtures, including the Bengali five-spice mix known as panchphoron, together with cumin, fennel, fenugreek and mustard seeds.   

It grows wild in India and is cultivated in several parts of the world, including Egypt and parts of the Middle East. Mature plants grow to about a foot (300 mm) in height.


Nigella sativa has a number of common names in various languages including English:

  • Black cumin
  • Black caraway
  • Black onion seed
  • Black sesame
  • Nigella
  • Roman coriander
  • Fennel flower
  • Nutmeg flower
  • Kalonji (India)
  • Jah-davels (Middle East)

These common names are extremely confusing, because Nigella sativa is not related to any of these better known spices.

True black cumin, for instance (see left), is actually Bunium persicum (also known as Kala zeera or Zira), and, like parsley, it belongs to the apiaceae family. It is found growing wild in the mountains of Iran, Afghanistat, Tajikistan, Pakistan, as well as Kashmir and Punjab is northern western India. It is a perennial herb with a tuberous root system, frilly leaves and tiny white flowers, and it grows double the height of Nigella sativa

Like Nigella sativa, the seeds of black cumin are used for culinary purposes and they also have therapeutic properties, working as a stimulant and a carminative (to prevent and combat flatulence.) The plant itself is used to aid the healing of wounds, and it is said to prevent obesity if used continuously. Like Nigella sativa, Bunium persicum is also valued for its oil, which has many different uses. The root is said to taste like chestnuts once cooked.  

The cumin most of us are familiar with is different too, and belongs to the umbelliferae family. Indigenous to Egypt, Cuminum cyminum, which I cook with all the time, is now grown all over the world, mostly for its seeds. It’s a must for a good, traditional Indian curry. The essential oil from Cuminum cyminum is sometimes added to massage oil to help cellulite problems.  


Medicinal Uses of Nigella sativa

The medicinal uses of Nigella sativa are legendary, and in some societies it is considered to be a “cure all.”  

For instance, in India it is used to repel lice from clothing, and it is eaten to get rid of worms and cure nerve problems. It is also said to reduce flatulence, induce sweating, and stimulate mothers’ milk, as well as to help with asthma, rheumatism, immune disorders, allergies, headaches and more severe migraines, colds and fever, headaches, peptic ulcers, and chronic active gastritis. It has been found to have strong antibacterial and antifungal qualities, and is also valued for its antioxidant activity. More incredibly, researchers have found that it can help those with diabetes, epilepsy, leukemia, damage caused by heart attack, and various types of cancer.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • The complete book of SPICES A practical guide and directory to over 40 spices by Ellen Freke. Quintet Publishing Limited, London 1997
  • Essential Oil Consituents of Zira (Bunium persicum [Boiss.] B. Fedtsch.) from Tajikistan by Farukh S. Sharapov et al. AkiNik Publications, Tajikistan 2015
  • Kala zeera ( Bioss.): a Kashmirian high value crop by Parvaze A Sofi, Nazeer A Zeerak & Parmeet Singh. TÜBÌTAK, India 2009
  • A review on therapeutic potential of Nigella sativa: A miracle herb Chemopreventive potential of volatile oil from black cumin (Nigella sativa L.) seeds against rat colon carcinogenesis.
  • Effect of Nigella sativa (N. sativa L.) and oxidative stress on the survival pattern of MCF-7 breast cancer cells.
  • Comparative Study of Nigella sativa and Triple Therapy in Eradication of Helicobacter pylori in Patients with Non-Ulcer Dyspepsia
  • Anticancer Activities of Nigella Sativa (Black Cumin)
  • Potential of spice-derived phytochemicals for cancer prevention
  • Protective effects of Nigella sativa oil and thymoquinone against toxicity induced by the anticancer drug cyclophosphamide.
  • Thymoquinone: potential cure for inflammatory disorders and cancer
  • Photograph of Nigella sativa plant courtesy of K Yamada/Wikimedia & Flickr
  • Photograph of Nigella sativa seeds courtesy of TheGoblin/Wikipedia
  • Photograph of Bunium persicum courtesy of TÜBÌTAK, Indian Division of Plant Breeding & Genetics
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