Scientific Name: Nigella damascena
Common names: Love-In-A-Mist, Miss Jekyll, Jack-In-The-Green, Devil-in-the-Bush, Jack in Prison, Love Entangle, Bride-in-Hair, Love-in-a-Puzzle, Love in a Snarl
Also known as: Ragged Lady, Lady In The Bower, Hair of Venus, Lady in Shade, St. Catherine’s Wheel, Spider’s Legs, Garden Black Seed, Black Caraway
The Nigella flower is an annual, fast-growing herbaceous plant. This slender, hardy and erect plant reaches a height of 45 to 60 cm. A single seedling can spread horizontally over an area with a radius of 20—25 cm. A well-developed, large plant can produce many dozens of flowers.
Nigella is a delicate and dainty ornamental flower, belonging to the buttercup family of plants. The approximate size of the flower head is 4 cm. The flower is nested within a ring of green, multifid and lace-like bracts. There are blue, white, pink and purple Nigella varieties or hybrids. This showy and fluffy flower has semi-double structure. The petals are, in fact, colored sepals, with a number ranging from 5 to 25. The real petals, located at the base of the stamens, are clasped and very small. A prominent feature of the Nigella flower is its pistil which consists of 4-5 erect carpels.
The plant has feathery, ferny, lace-like or filigreed leaves. The frothy leaves are alternate and pinnately divided. Their color is bright green. The leafs form a wispy and dream-like foliage.
Horticulturalists greatly appreciate the aesthetics of the Nigella flower’s fruit. The fruit is a large, inflated and roundish/oval green capsule, made of united, seeds-filled follicles. The seeds are small, teardrop-shaped and of intense black color. A single flower can form up to a hundred seeds. Each fruit features five prominently pointed, crescent-like beaks on its top. The color of the fruit changes from pale green (with purple/brown stripes) to pinkish and finally brown. The ornamental seed pods are often used in fresh- and dried-flower arrangements.
Habitat: The Nigella flower is native to Southern Europe (the Mediterranean region), southwestern Asia and northern Africa. Nigella flowers grow wild in fields, meadows, woodlands and rocky areas. They are often seen on neglected and damp lands.
Cultivated Nigella flower: As a cultivated species, the Nigella flower thrives worldwide, in regions with temperate climate. It is typically found in Victorian-style, English cottage gardens. It is often used to fill flower border gaps. Nigellas fit well in rock gardens, woodland gardens and container planting. They can be planted along fence rows, as well as in mixed beds and borders. The Nigella flower looks absolutely magical when planted in hanging baskets and window boxes. It is a much appreciated ornamental plant for both the beauty of its flowers and the unique appeal of its foliage.
As a cultivated flower, the Nigella is available in more than 15 varieties. Some of the most attractive and sought-after hybrids include Miss Jekyll, Persian Jewels, Blue Midget and African Bride. Miss Jekyll is a variety characterized by sky-blue flowers. Persian Jewels are variations of white, rose, violet, red and indigo-blue blooms. Blue Midget is Nigella’s dwarf variety. African Bride is the most unique among all varieties of Nigella, characterized by brown-centered white flowers.
When to plant: The seeds should be planted in spring and early autumn. It is important to sow the seeds when there is no frost. The seeds can be scattered by hand, and then raked into the soil. Planting the seeds deeper than 1-2 cm into the soil is not recommended. The sown area does not require covering throughout the winter. The sprouts two to three months after the sowing. To secure that Nigella flowers keep blooming over longer periods of time, garden enthusiasts use the technique of succession planting. They sow the seeds in several phases, leaving week-long gaps in between.
Note: Due to its long taproot, the Nigella flower does not tolerate transplanting. Direct sowing should always be the preferred method of planting Nigellas.
Flowering time: The plant blooms from late spring to end-fall.
The scent: The Nigella flower does not possess any particular scent. The Nigella seed oil is sometimes used as a perfume fragrance.
Pollination: This flower’s primary pollinators are the bees. The flower is a hermaphrodite (it contains both stamens and carpels).
Gardening requirements: The Nigella flower is a low-to-medium maintenance plant. Although it prefers growing in sun and on well-drained soil, it can also thrive on average soil and limited shade. In optimal conditions, the daily sun exposure should range between 6-8 hours. Ideally, the plant should be grown on organically-composted, slightly acidic (6.0 – 7.0) soil. It also adjusts on sandy, loamy and clay soils. If the climate is windy, twiggy sticks can be used to support the stem. The plant requires little-to-medium watering and consistent moisture. In warm soils the seeds grow fast, while in cold and over-watered soil they are prone to rotting.
The flower self-seeds, and it does so prolifically. It is recommended not to plant the seeds too densely — this prevents a growth of spindly flowers (frail, tall stems which complete for sunlight).
Nigella is an heirloom plant. Once sown in the garden, the flowers will reappear on the same spot, year after year. The Nigella flower can sometimes be invasive and inhabit the growth of other plants, particularly legumes. On the positive side, this flower is usually not troubled by insects and common plant diseases. It is, however, vulnerable to Aphids.
Toxicity: the Nigella flower is not poisonous. However, the seeds contain amounts of toxic alkaloids which, in greater doses, are not recommended for consumption.
History of cultivation: The Nigella flower has been grown in the gardens across Britain and Europe since the mid-sixteenth century. The Bible refers to this flower as the ‘Bitter Fitch’ (Isaiah 28:27). In the early 17th century, colonists introduced the Nigella flower to North America, mainly as an exotic cut flower. Initially, the Nigella flowers were blue, while other colors and double-flower varieties were developed at the end of the 16th century. It is said that Thomas Jefferson, the American Founding Father, grew Nigella flowers in his own garden.
Nigella flower’s best-known cousin, the black cumin: The Nigella garden flower (Nigella damascena) is often confused with another flower from the same family, black cumin ( Nigella sativa). The flowers of both the species look very similar. However, black cumin is mainly cultivated as a spice. Its culinary use is particularly popular in the Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern cuisines. Black cumin seeds were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. The peppery-scented seed has many medicinal uses due to its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Throughout history, it has been widely used as traditional medicine. An Arabic proverb says that the black cumin seeds are ‘medicine for every disease except death.’
Interesting Facts About the Nigella Flower
Etymology: The botanical name of the Nigella flower is Nigella damascena. The genus name Nigella comes from the Latin words nigellus, meaning small and black (a reference to the size and the color of its seeds). Damascena means “of Damascus,” referring to a claim that the flower was brought from Damascus (Syria) to Europe, in the late 16th century. Others refute this claim, stating that the plant originates from regions in northern Africa and Southern Europe.
Ethnologically, the Nigella flower is quite unique, since it has many popular (common) names. For example, the flower is often known as Love-In-A-Mist because of the fern-like foliage which creates the appearance of mist around the flowers.
Another common name, Devil-In-The-Bush, describes the shape of the seed pods that get formed once the flowering is over. The seed pod resembles a balloon or a poppy head, with attached spikes (horns) which peek through the plant’s foliage.
Due to its spiky leaves, the flower is also known as St. Catherine’s Wheel. St. Catherine of Alexandria was a fourth-century Christian saint and patron of maidens, tortured and killed on a spiked breaking wheel.
The flower is also known as Bride-In-Hair, honoring the Renaissance, when brides wore their hair open, as a symbol of their modesty.
Miss Jekyll, arguably the best-known garden variety of the Nigella flower, is named after the renowned English horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll who popularized this flower.
Flower Magic, Legends and Lore: Across spiritual traditions, the Nigella flower is considered a potent flower used in plant magic, shape-shifting and love spells. Several common names, including Love-in-a-Puzzle and Love-in-a-Snarl, testify to these folk beliefs in the magic power of the Nigella flower.
The story goes that Frederik I, the Holy Roman Emperor leading the Crusaders, got seduced by a green-haired water spirit. Enchanted by her beauty, he drowned in the foggy, shallow waters of the Goksu River in Turkey. At the banks of the river, the Nigella flower grew from the green hairs of the water nymph.
The prominent alchemist and astrologer Jabir (Geber), often considered the ‘Father of Chemistry,’ included the Nigella flower as a necessary ingredient of his potent red elixir.