The Longevity of Love-in-a-Mist

Learn how an acclaimed garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, collected and bred unique plants, including one particularly appealing azure bloom.

  • Love-in-a-mist's lacy foliage led to its common name. From a distance, the effect of the delicate blooms hidden behind fine leaves is not unlike viewing them through a mist.
    Photo by Getty Images/Wendy Van
  • ‘Miss Jekyll’ love-in-a-mist is just one of 30 unique plants that Gertrude Jekyll refined and bred.
    Photo by Getty Images/manfredxy
  • The fine foliage of love-in-a-mist lends a soft, wild texture to any landscape.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/mex99

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.”

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