Nigella Seeds, or Black Cummin.
By DR. F. A. FLÜCKIGER, Professor in the University of Bern.
These seeds, which had a place in the Bengal Pharmacopoeia (1844), are included in the Pharmacopoeia of India (1868) among the "non-officinal" articles. But, as they are still of considerable importance in the East, and are even in use in some parts of Europe, I have thought that a few particulars regarding the experiments I have made upon them may not be uninteresting to the readers of the Pharmaceutical Journal.
Name.—In pharmacy they have been termed Semen Nigellae, s. Melanthii, s. Cumini nigri. In English the plant bears the name of Nigella, Black Cummin, Gith, or Bishopswort; in German the seeds are called Schwarzkümmel or Nardensame; in French Cumin noir, Graine de Nigelle romaine, or Poivrette. Most of the Indian names signify, when translated, Black Cummin.
Botanical Origin.—Nigella sativa, L. (N. indica, Roxb.), belongs to the Order Ranunculaceae and is an annual herb, 8 to 12 inches high, with leaves cut into numerous, narrow, pinnate segments. The flowers are solitary, terminal, without an involucre; the petals blue and white, with greenish glands. The capsule is formed of 3 to 6 carpels, opening by the ventral suture. The plant grows on the Mediterranean coasts, in Egypt and Trans-Caucasia, whence it has spread to India. Boissier (Flora Orientalis, i, 68.) regards the var. β brackyloba, occurring in Cilicia and Syria, as the original type of the plant in a wild state.
Nigella sativa is now widely distributed as a corn-field weed throughout temperate Europe and America, (Though occasionally cultivated in gardens, the plant is scarcely naturalized in the United States.—EDITOR AMER. JOUR. PHARM.) though not in Britain. In Germany it is cultivated to some extent near Erfurt.
History.—Nigella is thought by some to be the kezach of Isaiah (xxviii, 25), translated in the English Bible fitches.
Dioscorides described the plant clearly under the name of Mελανθιον. Pliny called it Git, under which appellation it is found among the plants which Charlemagne ordered to be cultivated on the imperial farms of his dominions. This name, however, was frequently applied in the middle ages to the Corn Cockle, Agrostemma Githago, L., which is, indeed, termed by Gerarde Bastard Nigella. In his time, nigella was commonly sown in gardens, the seeds being used medicinally in wine as a spicy stimulant, and also as a perfume, for he says "it serveth well among other sweets to put into sweet waters, bagges, and odoriferous powders."
Nigella seeds had a place in the London Pharmacopoeia as late as the edition of 1721. In the East, the seeds have been extensively used from the remotest times to the present day.
Description.—The seeds are about 1/16th of an inch long, of an irregular, compressed pyramidal form, 3 or 4-sided, with an oblique rounded base, whence sharp ridges proceed towards the blunt summit of the seed. The surface is black, rough, granular, and devoid of polish. The seeds have an aromatic taste, and, when crushed, considerable fragrance. (* Those of the nearly allied N. Damascena, L., are rather more ovoid, less sharply ridged, less aromatic, and not pungent.)
Microscopical Structure.—The albumen consists of large polyhedral cells, and is covered by a thin brown tegmen. The testa presents two or three rows of more or less thick-walled cells, the inner being elongated in a direction parallel to the surface of the seed, the outer vaulted, and a certain number of them, chiefly those forming the ridges, prominently conical. The whole testa is blackish or dark bluish. The embryo is situated near the apex of the seed.
The tissue of the albumen abounds in fat oil and in granular albuminous matters; it is not altered by a salt of iron.
Chemical Composition.—Reinsch in 1841 obtained from this seed 35.8 per cent. of fat oil, 0.8 per cent of volatile oil, and only 0.6 per cent. of ash. He gave the name of Nigellin to a bitter extract resembling turpentine, yet soluble in water as well as in alcohol, though not in ether.
By submitting 25 lbs. of fresh seed to distillation, I obtained a nearly colorless essential oil in even smaller quantity than Reinsch. It has a slight odor, somewhat resembling that of parsley oil, with a magnificant bluish fluorescence, as already remarked by Reinsch.
In a column 50 mm. long, this oil deviates the ray of polarized light 9.8° to the left. Its specific gravity is 0.8909. The chief part of it, when distilled with chloride of calcium in a current of dry carbonic acid, comes over at 493° (256° C.) In an elementary analysis (Performed in my laboratory by Dr. Kraushaar.) it yielded: carbon 83.3, and hydrogen 11.8 per cent, corresponding to the formula, 2C10H16+H2O.
The residual portion was almost entirely devoid of deviating power; it yielded: carbon 87.89, and hydrogen 11.72 per cent., after having been rectified by means of sodium. This part of the oil consequently belongs to the formula C10H16.
I extracted the fat oil, by means of boiling ether, from seed grown in Germany, previously finely powdered. The oil thus obtained, which necessarily included some essential oil, imparting to the other its fluorescence, amounted to 25.6 per cent. It is a fluid fat, which does not congeal at + 5° (-15 °C.); it was found to consist chiefly of olein, besides which it yielded a considerable amount of a solid fatty acid, the crystals of which, after reiterated purification, melted at 131° (55° C.) The melting point did not rise by recrystallization, the acid being probably a mixture of palmitinic and myristic acids.
Nigella seeds, powdered and dried over sulphuric acid, yielded 3.3195 (On an average of three experiments made in my laboratory.) per cent. of nitrogen, answering to about 21 ½ per cent. of albuminous matter.
Uses.—It is stated in the Pharmacopoeia of India, that nigella seeds are carminative, and they were formerly so regarded in Europe. In the East generally they are used as a condiment to food, and in Greece, Turkey and Egypt they are frequently strewed over the surface of bread and cakes in the same manner as anise or sesame. The fixed oil of the seeds is also expressed for use.
I have no recent statistics indicating the extent to which the seed is grown, but may state, on the authority of an official French document that, during the year 1854-55, 83 quarters, worth 2592 rupees, were exported from Madras to Ceylon.—Pharm. Journ., Lond., Aug. 26, 1871.