Genus: Nigella damascena
Pronunciation: (nye-JEL-uh dam-uh-SEE-nuh)
• 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-bus, 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 fennel-like 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 1 1/2 inches across form above a collar of threadlike bracts. Each flower has five petal-like 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.
The semidouble ‘Miss Jekyll’ hybrids are about 18 inches tall and come in white and rose as well as pale, bright, and deep blue shades; these are available as separate colors. ‘Persian Jewels’, about 15 inches tall, produce flowers of pink, mauve, rose, lavender, whtie, and blue. Mulberry Rose, a selection of Persian Jewels, is available as a separate color. Shorty Blue and Dwarf Moody Blue are 6- to 8-inch-high cultivars that are just right for edging the front of a border. Both open violet-blue, but Dwarf Moody Blue gradually changes to clear sky blue. Oxford Blue, at 30 inches, is a giant among love-in-a-mist cultivars. Its large, extra-double deep blue flowers followed by dark seedpods make it ideal for cutting, and its height suggests a position at the back of the border. N. d. var. plena, 15 inches tall, is a shorter double with white or blue flowers.
Several other species of Nigella are good garden subjects and well worth growing. N. hispanica, native to North Africa and Spain, is similar to love-in-a-mist but has a more sprawling habit, slightly coarser leaves, and larger deep blue flowers with black centers and maroon stamens. Its pod is greenish and more elongated than that of N. damascena and has chunkier, flaring styles. N. orientalis offers yellow flowers and a seedpod that opens out when dry to form buff-colored “flowers.’’ The blue-tinged whitish flowers of N. sativa are less showy than those of N. damascena, but they are still attractive, and the flavor of the seeds gives an authentic touch to many Indian dishes and spice blends.
Nigellas grow in Zones 3 through 10. The seeds are best sown in early spring or fall where you want them to grow. They can be transplanted, but transplants may not grow as vigorously as direct-sown plants. Just sprinkle seeds thinly over a prepared bed of average, well-drained soil in full sun and pat them in. Thin seedlings to about 12 inches apart.
Love-in-a-mist is a good plant to sow over spring bulbs to fill in the bare spaces that result when the bulbs have finished their show. After the bulbs’ foliage dies back naturally, thin the nigella seedlings as directed above.
To start nigellas indoors, sow seeds in a container of moistened soilless mix in early spring—about April 1 in Zone 5. Barely cover seeds with the mix. Cover the container with a sheet of plastic wrap or slip it into a plastic bag. Seeds germinate fastest at between 65° and 70°F. As soon as the seedlings appear, move the container to a sunny window or under fluorescent plant lights. When the seedlings have two sets of true leaves, about mid-April, transplant them to larger containers, such as small peat pots or 21/4-inch six-pack cells. In mid-May, gradually accustom the young plants to the outdoors, and transplant to the garden during the last week of May.
Flowering can begin as early as June or July and continue until frost. Blossoms make long-lasting cut flowers. Deadhead spent flowers to encourage good-sized later blooms, but leave them on if you want to harvest pods for drying or let some self-sow for next year’s plants. A little benign neglect will ensure a supply of pods for drying for years to come.
Harvesting pods for arrangements when they are firm but before they begin to open preserves their color best. Bunch the stems and hang upside down to dry or dry upright. Leave the foliage on or strip it off as you like.
Nigellas have no serious disease or pest problems. All in all, they’re some of the easiest and most carefree flowers you can grow.
• Thompson and Morgan Seedsmen, PO Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527, (800) 274-7333; www.thompson-morgan.com/ seeds/us/.
• Twinleaf Garden Shop, PO Box 316, Charlottesville, VA?22902, (434) 984-9821.