Nigella, a True Blue "Friend" in the Garden

Connie Holland
Adams County Master Gardener

(1/18) The dreary brown landscape of winter can make one long for the colors of summer. Recently while packaging Nigella seeds from seedpods heads dried in my shed, I found myself longing for its pretty blue flowers because it is one of my favorite summer annuals. Nigella damascena is more commonly known as Love-in-a-Mist.

That common name arises from the Nigella flower being nestled in a ring of lacy foliage, hence "mist". Nigella damascena is a wonderful cottage garden plant and great filler with its airy lacey foliage and vibrant true blue flowers. Nigella flowers keep well cut, and the seedpods are easily dried. Native to southern Europe and northern Africa, the name means black, the color of its seeds.

This hardy annual blooms early in spring if planted the previous fall. It also can be planted in spring for a later summer bloom. Seeds should be scattered in a well draining full sun area of the garden. Seeds need not be covered. Nigella easily grows in a variety of soil types. When flowers fade, interesting bulbous striped seedpods with "spiky tips" appear on the cultivar Nigella damascena. These seedpods may be used fresh or dried as a decorative element in arrangements. If wishing to dry the seedpods, be sure to cut them while still green.

Nigella grows about 2-3 feet tall, with pinnately divided, thread-like, alternate leaves. The flowers, blooming in early summer, most commonly are different shades of a lovely blue, but can be white, pink, rose or paler blue and purple. The colorful "petals" actually are bracts similar to the red bracts of a poinsettia. The true Nigella flowers are quite tiny and are located at the base of the "petal" cluster.

Nigella self-seeds readily. If current season plants are left to go to seed, the seeds will sprout within a few weeks and remain perfectly fine all winter, ready to grow and bloom in early summer. Nigella usually grows better from direct-sown seeds than from starting in pots. As an annual, the seedlings are amazingly hardy. Seedlings in my garden have survived the recent -3 F degree nights with no adverse effects.

This easily grown plant has been a familiar flower in English cottage gardens since Elizabethan times, admired for its ferny foliage, spiky flowers and unusual seedpods and is widely cultivated. A common variety is 'Miss Jekyll'. A recently purchased ‘Miss Jekyll’ seed packet illustration showed bright blue, white, pale blue and darker blue mix of colors. 'Persian Rose' is pale pink. Other cultivars are 'Albion', 'Blue Midget', 'Cambridge Blue', 'Mulberry Rose', and 'Oxford Blue' and a 'Dwarf Moody Blue'.

Nigella hispanica is a taller species with larger blue "petals" on its flowers. The seeds of Nigella sativa, known as black onion seed, onion seed or just Nigella, are used as a spice in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. In India, the seeds are used as a stimulant to ease indigestion problems, and are given to treat nerve defects, to reduce flatulence, and induce sweating. Dried pods are also used to repel some insects, much like mothballs.

Not many flowers contribute such a lovely true blue color to gardens as does Nigella. Because Nigella has a relatively short flowering time before it turns the flowers into seedpods, sow seeds over several weeks in the current season for blooms and in fall for early flowers the following year. With succession planting, one can enjoy the beautiful blue flowers of Nigella all summer. Once Nigella blooms in your garden, it will be a long lasting beautiful contributor.

Read other articles by Connie Holland