Photos by Sabina Rüber
Easy to grow from seed, Nigella damascena or love-in-a-mist is a classic cottage garden flower grown for its delicate, blue, pink and white flowers and clouds of fine, ferny foliage – the clue to the mist-themed name. The flowers are worth taking a close look at as each one is a little work of art, with layers of coloured sepals, stamens and spiky horns in the centre. These horns are retained when the flower fades, leaving a wonderfully architectural seed pod – and giving rise to another less charming common name, Devil-in-the-bush. The botanical name meanwhile comes from the Latin niger meaning black, a reference to the flower’s black seeds. These seeds are edible, with a slightly spicy flavour, although it is the seeds of another species, Nigella sativa, that are used most widely in cooking, sometimes known as kalonji.
The well-loved Nigella damascena has various cultivars, and you can’t go wrong with the pale blue ‘Miss Jekyll’, named after the redoubtable Victorian gardener Gertrude Jekyll, or its white counterpart, ‘Miss Jekyll Alba’. Also from this species comes ‘Albion Green Pod’, which has fresh white flowers with a boss of green stamens in the middle, followed by a fantastic green seed pod. ‘Albion Black Pod’ is similar, only with darker green stamens and a dark purple-black seed pod. Another species of nigella, N. papillosa, has risen in popularity recently, slightly taller than N. damascena and with larger more substantial flowers. ‘African Bride’ has showy, white flowers with contrasting deepest purple stamens rising up dramatically from the centre of the flower, while ‘Midnight’ has stunning violet-blue flowers with blue-black stamens. Both have very ornamental, spidery seed pods.
All nigella are best sown direct, either in mid spring or early autumn. Sow in drills, or simply scatter the seed where you want the plants to flower, in full sun or part shade. Easy-going and eager to please, these pretty flowers will grow in most soils, but will do best in a fairly moist, well-drained spot, flowering from early to late summer.
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