Herb to Know: Love-In-A-Mist (Nigella damascena)


| June/July 1994


Nigella damascena (nye-jel-uh dam-uh-see-nuh)
• Family Ranunculaceae
• Hardy annual

Love-In-A-Mist (Nigella damascena), a pretty plant with a romantic name, is native to North Africa and southern Europe; it is one of about twenty species in the genus, all of them annual herbs from the Mediterranean region. Several are cultivated in gardens, and one, N. sativa, is grown for its aromatic seeds.

Nigella, a diminutive of niger, or “black”, refers to the color of the seeds. Damascena refers to Damascus, Syria, one of the places where this herb is at home. The common name love-in-a-mist refers to the appearance of the flower in a nest of misty, threadlike foliage; an alternate name, devil-in-the-bush, hardly sounds like the same plant, but it refers to the inflated purple-striped greenish seed capsule topped with bristly styles. The plant is sometimes called wild fennel because of its fennellike leaves, although fennel belongs to the carrot family (Umbelliferae) and love-in-a-mist to the buttercup family.

Love-in-a-mist is an erect plant that grows about 18 inches tall. It has branching stems and alternate, finely divided leaves. Solitary blue or white flowers about 11/2 inches across form above a collar of threadlike bracts. Each flower has five petallike sepals and five smaller petals; the flowers of some cultivars are semidouble or double. The maroon and green ovary contains velvety black teardrop-shaped seeds 1/16 to 1/8 inch long.

The seeds taste somewhat spicy (some people note a resemblance to nutmeg) and have been used as a condiment and in confectionery, to flavor wines and snuff, and as an expectorant. They are far less flavorful than those of N. sativa, known as black cumin or fennel flower, which has had a greater culinary and medicinal role than N. damascena. Love-in-a-mist is most valued as a beautiful, lacy ornamental in the garden and a colorful component of fresh and dried arrangements.

Although flowers of the species come in a clear blue or white, growers have developed a number of cultivars that extend the color range to include pinks and purples as well as producing showier blossoms and providing shorter and taller plants to accommodate different landscaping situations.





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