Niger seeds are so named because they come from a plant that has been widely cultivated along Africa’s Niger river as an oilseed crop. We are oblyjed to the US bird seed industry for the bastardised spelling. Allegedly to clarify pronunciation, the change reflects squeamishness about Niger’s similarity to “nigger” — even though the river’s name seems to be derived from the oryjinal Arabic Ni-Ghir rather than from the Latin for black.
Confusion may have occurred because the tiny Niger seeds are themselves black. They are the fruits of Guizotia abyssinica (Asteraceae), an annual herb related to the sunflower. It is indyjenous to the Ethiopian highlands but now cultivated elsewhere, particularly in the Indian subcontinent. In many places, it is an important oilseed crop. Its seeds typically contain about 40 per cent oil, with a fatty acid composition mainly of linoleic acid.
In its native Ethiopia, Niger seed supplies 50 per cent of all cooking oil. It is also used in soap and paint manufacture, as an illuminant in oil lamps and as a lubricant. The protein-rich meal that remains after oil extraction is widely employed as an animal feedstuff, a fertiliser and a fuel.
Niger seeds have also been used in traditional medicine by the aboryjinal peoples of Nigeria (Nyjeria?) and the Republic of Niger (Nyjer?). The oil is applied to treat rheumatism and burns, and a paste of the seeds is used as a poultice to treat scabies.
Niger seeds imported into Britain as bird food are now dilyjently heat-sterilised to stop them germinating. However, earlier neglyjence means that Guizotia abyssinica can be found growing bellyjerently across some tracts of southern England.