Whether you call it Love in a Mist, Devil in the Bush, Love-Entangle, Jack-in-Prison, Bride in Hair , Lady in the Green, or one of its many other common names, Nigella damascena is an interesting plant for the garden. If you like blue flowers, cut flowers, easy cottage garden plants, or plants for dried flower arrangements Nigella is the plant for you.
Nigella is native to southern Europe, northern Africa and southwest Asia. It was being grown in English gardens by 1570, where several cultivars were developed over the centuries. Thomas Jefferson grew it in his gardens at Monticello and the famed garden architect Gertrude Jekyll used it in her cottage garden designs.
Nigella has odd threadlike leaves, airy and fern like, especially at the top surrounding the flowers. The “Mist” portion of one of its common names come from the way the leaves look surrounding the flower. It grows 12-18 inches high but each plant is narrow. They look best grown in masses, which also keeps them from flopping. They have a taproot. Plants are short lived but in longer growing seasons they often reseed and a second generation will bloom in the same year.
The species has true blue colored 5 “petal” 1 inch flowers but cultivated varieties have larger flowers with more layers of petals and also come in rose, pale pink, white and several shades of blue. The petals of Nigella are actually its sepals; the true petals are hidden in the center of the flower, under the stamens. The flowers are surrounded by the ferny leaves, a pretty “misty” backdrop for each one. The flowers are good cut flowers and were often used in bridal arrangements or in a bride’s hair, accounting for another common name.
Flowers turn into 5 chambered seed pods which look like little red or purple striped balloons. The pods have “horns “ on top and bristles along the sides. They can be dried for flower arrangements. Children enjoy popping them like popping bubble wrap. The pods are filled with tiny black seeds.
Nigella is a fast growing annual so almost all gardeners can grow it. It prefers full sun and well-drained soil but is not particularly fussy about soil pH or texture. In the wild it is often found in rocky areas. It will tolerate dryness but grows better when watered moderately. It is said to be deer resistant. The plants have no insect or disease problems. Bees are attracted to the flowers.
If you want to grow Nigella you’ll probably have to start with seeds. They are available from many heritage type nurseries, a couple links are provided at the bottom of the article. You can start them inside about 6 weeks before your last frost or plant the seeds where you want them to grow in early spring. They can be sown in the fall in the garden for spring germination too. Seed should be sown on top of the soil and lightly pressed into it.
Most references say that Nigella does not transplant well because of its taproot. I sow several seeds in paper cups, (you could use peat pots), inside in late spring then transplant the whole pot into the garden with great success. Plants will bloom in about 3 months from seed.
If you are not interested in the attractive seed pods you may want to keep the nigella plants dead headed so they don’t spread too much in the garden. I don’t find them invasive and I save some seed to start inside each year just in case. Other gardeners have reported that nigella shoots those tiny seeds into the wind and plants come up everywhere.
If you want to save the seed pods cut them before they are fully ripe. Put the green pods in paper bags to dry in a warm place. Your car sitting in the sun is a good location. After they are dry many people spray them with clear hairspray or a craft spray to help preserve them.
I plant nigella in my cutting garden, beside the bachelor’s buttons, 4 o’clocks, zinnias and cosmos. They will blend well in informal cottage gardens. Keep them to the front so you can admire the unique looking flowers.
Herbal and other uses of nigella
Love in a Mist is a close relative of black cumin, Nigella sativa, whose seeds have culinary uses like poppy seeds. Some references claim that Nigella damascene seeds can be used the same way and that they taste like nutmeg. The seeds are pressed and made into an essential oil that is used in perfumes and possibly has medicinal uses. It is said to smell like strawberry jam.
Nigella sativa has some uses in herbal medicine but it’s unclear if Love in a Mist, Nigella damascene can be used the same way. Some references list the seeds and oil of Love in a Mist as toxic when ingested. When I was reading up on the plant in herbal references it was often clear that the two species had been confused. I would suggest growing the plant for its flowers and seed pods and not for culinary or medicinal use.
Here are some sources for buying nigella