Love-in-a-mist, or Nigella damascena, is deeply rooted in ancient history, and thanks to refinement from legendary British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, the blooms can still be found everywhere from carefree cottage gardens to fine floral arrangements.
Native from southern Europe to northern Africa, N. damascena has long been considered a useful medicinal and culinary plant. It’s a member of the buttercup family that’s been grown as an ornamental in European gardens possibly as far back as the 1500s. The name “nigella” comes from the Latin “niger,” which translates to “black” and refers to the coal-colored seeds found encapsulated in the balloon-like pods.
When the blooms were introduced to America, they were considered a cottage garden staple; pragmatic colonists were said to have particularly appreciated the edible foliage. The self-sowing annual plants were easy to grow, because their natural range includes roadsides and waste sites with poor, rocky soil. In his 1851 book The Flower-Garden, Joseph Breck describes love-in-a-mist’s foliage as a fennel-like leafy green; he also refers to the seeds as kind of a poor man’s aromatic spice. Ancient medicinal texts list the seeds of N. sativa, a very close relative of N. damascena, as a digestive cure-all.
Gertrude Jekyll: Garden Designer and Plant Breeder
Born in 1843, Gertrude Jekyll had a voracious appetite for learning and creating from a young age. She was raised at Bramley House in Surrey, England, where she was not only influenced by the wide range of scholars and artists who would visit her socially connected household, but also where her love of the natural world could flourish. It was at Bramley House that she grew her first garden. Her intellectual and artistic pursuits were encouraged when she attended the South Kensington School of Art. This formal training in fine art, specifically painting, greatly influenced her garden design style.
It’s rumored that her poor eyesight prompted Jekyll to move away from painting and to focus on garden design, where she gained popularity for her artfully planted landscapes that were often likened to watercolor paintings. Victorian landscape design was often precisely symmetrical, with stark, clean lines — making for a very formal but sometimes austere look. Jekyll’s decidedly softer, more whimsical designs were inspired by her studies in fine art and her love for natural landscapes. This departure from rigid Victorian design, coupled with her knack for writing, helped to define her signature style.
Her artistic approach made Jekyll something of a celebrity garden designer. She designed more than 400 gardens during her lifetime, a few of which remain intact today. She contributed hundreds of articles to numerous gardening magazines, and she authored 15 gardening books. And Jekyll had an incredible ability to educate; many of the terms and techniques that she described in her writings are considered foundational principles of landscape design today. Perhaps one of the most-quoted gardeners in history, she was a bit of a garden philosopher, and her contemplative garden musings from over a century ago still resonate deeply with modern gardeners: “The love of gardening is a seed that once sown never dies.”
Jekyll often collaborated with her long-time creative partner, Sir Edwin Lutyens, a renowned architect whose building style perfectly complemented her garden designs. The pair are often cited as visionaries in the Arts and Crafts design movement of the 1800s. The defining principles of this movement grew out of a critique of mechanization, exaltation of craftsmen and fine workmanship, and above all, a focus on a designer’s in-depth knowledge of the materials used. We can see from Jekyll’s legacy in plant breeding and writing on plant life that she was indeed an expert in her craft.
Gertrude Jekyll’s fame as a preeminent garden designer of the 19th and early 20th century often overshadows her prolific plant breeding career. ‘Miss Jekyll’ love-in-a-mist is just one of 30 unique herbaceous plants that she selected, refined, and bred. She was also famous for scouring landscapes for new or forgotten old specimens. Traveling from the Mediterranean to old Surrey cottage gardens, she curated and tinkered with her eclectic collection at her home nursery at Munstead Wood — a house designed by Lutyens, who constructed the building around Jekyll’s existing garden beds.
Jekyll’s contributions to the plant world endure, and her accomplishments include, most notably, primrose ‘Munstead Bunch’ and ‘Munstead’ lavender, which were each awarded a medal from the Royal Horticultural Society. Of course, another favorite is ‘Miss Jekyll’ love-in-a-mist, which is a refinement of the wild N. damascena and is still popular today.
‘Miss Jekyll’ Love-in-a-Mist
‘Miss Jekyll’ love-in-a-mist was bred in the late 1800s, yet the antique strain remains a top choice for professional growers and savvy home gardeners. It perfectly embodies the style of its breeder. Gertrude Jekyll’s designs were famous for appearing natural, yet sophisticated; the fine, lacy foliage of N. damascena lends a soft, wild texture to the landscape.
Jekyll’s plantings typically featured bursts of vibrant colors in what was often likened to paintbrush strokes, and she separated plants into categories, such as color families: warm reds and oranges, and cool blues and purples. Love-in-a-mist’s profusions of mellow, azure blooms fit the artists’ cool color palette — another signature of her painterly aesthetic.
Love-in-a-mist’s clouds of filigreed foliage create a misty effect when planted in “drifts;” Jekyll coined the term to describe her style of long, flowing groups of plants, typically in the border. Planting in drifts is still a widely used technique in bed design.
As a flower farmer, I’ve found love-in-a-mist to be an unrivaled champion for form, color, and ease of growing. As difficult as it can be to pick favorites when growing a panoply of gorgeous flowers, I am especially fond of the tempting blue blooms of ‘Miss Jekyll.’
The mass of lacy foliage makes for an excellent filler, adding bulk to arrangements without looking untamed or weedy. The soft, baby-blue blooms are highly sought after, as this color is quite rare in flowers. And as the petals drop, strikingly beautiful seed capsules inflate like balloons, making an everlasting pod that can be saved for off-season designs or added to arrangements for an unusual accent. I particularly adore love-in-a-mist for use when making flower crowns.
I like to think that Gertrude Jekyll loved this plant for the same reasons that I do; each stage of growth is beautiful and unique, from foliage to blooms to dried seed pod. Whether you consider this the perfect landscape plant to complete your charming cottage garden, or a versatile bloom for arrangements, we have one industrious and inspirational woman to thank for this timeless cultivar.
Nigella damascena is an easy-to-grow annual that readily self-sows.
These compact plants aren’t picky about soil, as they’re naturally found growing on marginal to poor land. They’re often best direct-sown; they do not tolerate being transplanted well. They prefer full sun to partial shade. Adequate moisture and attentive weeding are important as the small plants become established.
Love-in-a-mist is quick to mature, making it suitable for multiple sowings during the season. Flower farmers will often sow N. damascena 3 to 4 times to ensure a consistent supply of these versatile blooms. I’ve found success in starting an early crop in the greenhouse, not letting the plants become pot-bound, and transplanting with care. The annual plants will bloom from late spring through summer.
When left in the garden until the seeds mature, the plants easily drop seed that will sprout in place in spring. The dried pods can also be cut and hung upside down in paper bags for saving. After the small, black seeds fall from their pods, they can be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for the winter. Properly stored seeds will remain viable for up to 2 years.
Garden Note: Nigella seeds can be ordered from a number of seed sources and are available at many garden centers. Pale blue is the most common flower color, but other cultivars will produce shades of white, rose, and yellow.
For more, see: Love-in-a-Mist Lotion Recipe
Farmer Shannon McCabe helps write the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog and has traveled internationally as a seed researcher for the company. Find her work at Rare Seeds, or on Instagram @SeedScavenger