Introduction and description

The genus Nigella contains about 20 species of annual herbs, the most popular of which is Nigella sativa L. It is native to the Mediterranean region through West Asia to northern India and has long been domesticated. It can be frequently found growing wild as a weed in cultivated crops. Nigella as black cumin is mentioned in ancient Greek, Roman and Hebrew texts as a condiment and component of herbal medicines and was reportedly introduced to Britain in 1548. It is a minor seed spice cultivated from Morocco to Northern India; in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Niger and eastern Africa, especially Ethiopia, where it is also reportedly used as a fish poison (Jansen, 1981) and in Russia, Europe and North America. In South-East Asia, Nigella seeds are mainly used for medicinal purpose. Nigella has been used since antiquity by Asian herbalists and pharmacists and was used for culinary purposes by the Romans. The seeds of nigella were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun in ancient Egypt. Dioscorides, a Greek physician of the first century AD, recorded that black cumin seeds were taken to treat headaches, nasal catarrh, toothache and intestinal worms, as a diuretic and to increase breast milk. The name Nigella derives from the Latin nigellus or niger, meaning black. It is commonly called as black cumin and is popular by different names in different countries. It is called as black cumin or small fennel in English; cheveux de venus, nigelle, cumin noir orpoivrette in French; nigella in Italian; schwarzkummel in Germany; neguilla or pasinara in Spanish; kolongi in Turkish; jinten hitan in Indonesia and Malaya; kala zira, kalongi, krishanjirka, mangrail and many other vernacular names in India.

Nigella occurs wild in India and has been used as a condiment from ancient times. Nigella is quoted as black cumin in many texts and, because of similarity in common names, may be confused with other spices of family Apiaceae, viz. Siah Zira (literally black cumin - Carum carvi L.), Kala Zira (literally black cumin - Bunicum persicum Bioss. Fedtsch syn. Carum bulbocastum Koch.). Botanically and structurally, Nigella seed is altogether different from the above seed spices and belongs to a different family. To avoid such confusion, it is most appropriate to call the spice Nigella. The seeds of Nigella have been used as spices from ancient times in India when preparing pickles, as one of the ingredients, has the properties of a preservative. India is known to be the largest producer of Nigella in the world. The other producing countries are Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan. In India, it is commercially cultivated in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh (Vijay and Malhotra, 2002). Exact information on its area, production and productivity is not available, but it is estimated to be produced in an area of about 9000 ha area, with production of about 7000-8000 tonnes in India. During the year 2000-2001, about 1960 tonnes of Nigella seed, valuing Rs. 1053 x 105, was exported from India (Selven, 2002).

Nigella sativa L. belongs to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and the order Ranales. As per the conventional classification of spices, out of five types, viz. hot spices, mild spices, aromatic spices, herbs and aromatic vegetables, Nigella is classified as a mild spice and, on the basis of plant organs used, Nigella is illustrated as seed because the dried seeds are mostly used as spices.

The Nigella plant is an erect, herbaceous annual plant, with height ranging from 30 to 60 cm. The leaves are compound 2-3 pinnatisect cut into linear or linear-lanceolate segments, the leaves are greyish green, fine and feathery. The flowers are pale green when young and light blue when mature, becoming pale blue or white later. The flowers are bluish-white, solitary and terminal long peduncle without an involucre, beautiful because of the development of carina, five sepals, petaloid, corolla absent, stamens numerous, five carpels, partially united. The fruit is a capsule having many nectaries, generally 10, pocketlike, epicalyx present. The seeds are trigonous, black, rugulose-tubercular. The seeds are small, matt-black grains with a rough surface and an oily white interior. They are roughly triangulate, 1.5-3 mm long (Chopra, 1998; Malhotra, 2004a). Nigella seeds possess an aroma resembling strawberries when crushed. The seeds are similar to onion seeds. The seeds are slightly bitter and peppery with a crunchy texture. The other closely related species, Nigella damascena L. and Nigella arvensis L., are mostly used as ornamental plants and in medicines. India is the largest producer and exporter of Nigella seeds in the world.

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