Nigella is one of my favorite biennials. Most people call it Love-in-a-Mist, but others refer to it as “Devil in the Bush.” I cannot imagine why this comely flower would be called such an uncomely name. For me, the first appellation is much more fitting. In spring its misty loveliness graces gardens throughout the country and beyond.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 5, 2009.)
Nigella (Nigella damascena) is a graceful addition to gardens. The threadlike, finely divided leaves give the plants a delicate, airy appearance. Even the flowers are surrounded by the threadlike leaves, giving credence to the "Love-in-a-Mist" moniker. Plants branch out as they grow and top out at about one to one and one-half feet tall. Blue, white, or pink flowers a little more than one inch across adorn the ends of each branch. Following the flowers, curious papery-textured, horned seed capsules are formed.
Nigella is sometimes referred to as a hardy annual. The growing cycle, however, exactly fits the definition of a biennial. Biennials take two seasons to complete their life cycle. During the first season they produce roots and shoots, and during the second season they flower, set seed, and die. Many of them are self-seeding, and once established in the garden they reseed each year. (Please see remarks at end of this article.)
Nigella is now a part of my garden each spring. My acquaintance with it began when a friend brought me a bouquet of it from her garden. My first reaction was, "Wow, will that plant grow and bloom in my garden?" My friend assured me that it would, as it had been growing in her garden for several years. She promised to save me some seed.
True to her word, a few months later Shari brought me a handful of seed pods. I was as smitten with them as I was with the flowers. The papery pods were almost too pretty to shatter for the seeds inside them. I did just that, however.
After clearing the ground of debris and loosening the soil a bit with a rake, I scattered the seeds over the raked area and patted them firmly in place. In late winter, small, feathery seedlings emerged. They remained green and close to the ground and didn't mind the late freezes that came our way. When spring arrived, the stems elongated and before long I was regaled with hundreds of delicate flowers.
My efforts to transplant seedlings to other places in the garden met with disappointment, for they resent disturbance. However, I had much better luck scattering the seeds where I wished them to grow. For best flowering, make sure that you choose a sunny place and keep the soil evenly moist. Don't add fertilizer unless your soil is extremely poor. Rich soil will result in lots of feathery foliage and few flowers.
Several cultivars of Nigella can be found on seed racks and on mail-order or online sources, and several of Dave's Garden members have seeds to share. ‘Miss Jekyl' is a popular cultivar. ‘Persian Jewels' is offered in a mixture of mauve, lavender, purple, and blue. ‘Cambridge Blue' has double flowers and exceptionally long stems that are good for cutting. ‘Blue Midget' is a good front-of-the-border plant. Other cultivars include ‘Albion', Mulberry Rose', ‘Oxford Blue', and others.
A different species, (Nigella sativa) produces black seeds that are the "black fitches" of the Bible. Varying sources call the seeds black cumin, black onion seed, blackseed, black caraway, and nutmeg plant. They are used in the Middle East as a spice, and in Europe as a pepper substitute. Many medicinal uses have been made of blackseed. Nursing mothers use them to increase milk production, and it is believed that they benefit the body's immune system. Various skin conditions are treated with blackseed, and it is reputed to promote digestion and elimination.
Many thanks to Rebecca 101 for the image of 'Miss Jekyll', to PotEmUp for the seedpod image,
to Terry for the image of N. sativa, and to Pebble for the image of blackseed.
Author's revision of some data above: It has come to my attention that Nigella is a hardy annual, and not a biennial, as stated in the article. A biennial requires two years to complete its life cycle. Nigella grows, blooms, sets seed and dies within a one-year period of time. Confusion was caused by some definitions that defined the life cycle of a biennial as requiring two "growing seasons" instead of two years.
Thanks to Dave's Garden readers who recognized the error and brought it to my attention.
About Marie Harrison
Serving as a board member for Valparaiso Garden Club, the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and the Deep South Region, and National Garden Clubs takes a chunk of my time and attention. Being a Master Flower Show Judge, a Floral Design Instructor, instructor of horticulture for National Garden Clubs, and a University of Florida Master Gardener crowds a bit more into my busy days. In addition to these activities, I contribute regularly to Florida Gardening magazine and other publications. I am author of four gardening books, all published by Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida. Read about them and visit me at www.mariesgardenanddesign.com.