In English, Nigella sativa seed is variously called Black cumin, fennel flower, nutmeg flower, Roman coriander, blackseed, black caraway, or black onion seed. Other names used, sometimes misleadingly, are onion seed and black sesame, both of which are similar-looking but unrelated. The seeds are frequently referred to as black cumin (as in Bengali কালো জিরা kalo jira), but this is also used for a different spice, Bunium persicum. The scientific name is a derivative of Latin niger "black". An older English name gith is now used for the corncockle. In English-speaking countries with large immigrant populations, it is also variously known as kalonji (Hindi कलौंजी kalauṃjī or कलोंजी kaloṃjī), kezah Hebrew קצח), chernushka (Russian), çörek otu (Turkish), habbat albarakah (Arabic حبه البركة ḥabbatu l-barakah "seed of blessing") or siyah daneh (Persian سیاهدانه siyâh dâne).
This potpourri of vernacular names for this plant reflects that its widespread use as a spice is relatively new in the English speaking world, and largely associated with immigrants from areas where it is well known. Increasing use is likely to result in one of the names winning out.
Nigella sativa has a pungent bitter taste and a faint smell of strawberries. It is used primarily in candies and liquors. The variety of naan bread called Peshawari naan is as a rule topped with kalonji seeds. In herbal medicine, Nigella sativa has hypertensive, carminative, and anthelminthic properties. They are eaten by elephants to aid digestion.
The earliest written reference to N. sativa is thought to be in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament where the reaping of nigella and wheat is contrasted (Isaiah 28: 25, 27). Easton's Bible dictionary states that the Hebrew word ketsah refers to without doubt to N. sativa (although not all translations are in agreement). According to Zohary and Hopf, N. sativa "was another traditional condiment of the Old World during classical times; and its black seeds were extensively used to flavor food."
In Islam, it is regarded as one of the greatest forms of healing medicine available. Prophet Muhammad(SAW) once stated that the black seed can heal every disease—except death—as recounted in the following hadith:
Narrated Khalid bin Sa'd:We went out and Ghalib bin Abjar was accompanying us. He fell ill on the way and when we arrived at Medina he was still sick. Ibn Abi 'Atiq came to visit him and said to us, "Treat him with black cumin. Take five or seven seeds and crush them (mix the powder with oil) and drop the resulting mixture into both nostrils, for 'Aisha has narrated to me that she heard the Prophet saying, 'This black cumin is healing for all diseases except As-Sam.' 'Aisha said, 'What is As-Sam?' He said, 'Death.' " (Bukhari)
Avicenna, most famous for his volumes called The Canon of Medicine, refers to nigella as the seed that stimulates the body's energy and helps recovery from fatigue and dispiritedness. It is also included in the list of natural drugs of 'Tibb-e-Nabavi', or "Medicine of the Prophet (Muhammad)", according to the tradition "hold onto the use of the black seeds for in it is healing for all diseases except death" (Sahih Bukhari vol. 7 book 71 # 592).
In the Unani Tibb system of medicine, N. sativa is regarded as a valuable remedy for a number of diseases.
The seeds have been traditionally used in the Middle East and Southeast Asian countries to treat ailments including asthma, bronchitis, rheumatism and related inflammatory diseases, to increase milk production in nursing mothers, to promote digestion and to fight parasitic infections. Its oil has been used to treat skin conditions such as eczema and boils and to treat cold symptoms. Its many uses have earned nigella the Arabic approbation 'Habbatul barakah', meaning the seed of blessing.
The presence of an anti-tumor sterol, beta sitosterol, lends credence to its traditional use to treat abscesses and tumors of the abdomen, eyes, and liver.
Nigella Sativa oil is known to have opioid agonistic properties.
Anticestodal effect of N. sativa seeds was studied in children naturally infected with the respective worm. A single oral administration of 40 mg/kg of N. sativa seeds and equivalent amount of its ethanolic extract were effective in reducing the egg count in the faeces, with a comparable effect to niclosamide. The crude extracts also did not produce any adverse side effects from all the doses tested. In 1998, Korshom et al. investigated the anti-trematodal activity of N.sativa seeds against a ruminant fluke (Paramphistomum) in sheep. The methanol extract (1 ml/kg) and powder (200 mg/kg) showed high efficacy, comparable to Hapadex (netobimin, 20 mg/kg). (NOTE: methanol is transformed in the body to formaldehyde, and such raw extracts would not be used in a formulated product.) In 2005, Azza et al. studied the anti-schistosomicidal properties of aqueous extract of N. sativa seeds against Schistosoma mansoni miracidia, cercariae, and the adult worms in vitro. It showed strong biocidal effects against all stages of the parasite and also inhibited egg-laying of adult female worms.
In 2007, Abdulelah and Zainal-Abidin investigated the anti-malarial activities of different extracts of N.sativa seeds against P. berghei. Results indicated strong biocidal effects against the parasite.
Researchers at the Kimmel Cancer at Jefferson in Philadelphia have found that thymoquinone, an extract of nigella sativa seed oil, blocked pancreatic cancer cell growth and killed the cells by enhancing the process of programmed cell death, (apoptosis). While the studies are in the early stages, the findings suggest that thymoquinone could eventually have some use as a preventative strategy in patients who have gone through surgery and chemotherapy or in individuals who are at a high risk of developing cancer.