January 29, 2020

The Misty Look of Love


Janine Pineo Photo - Nigella damascena 'Persian Jewels'

• By Janine Pineo •

Let the madness begin.

It’s not hard to do when the weather is what the weather has been these past few days.

Throw in a pile of cheery seed catalogs and one can see the potential for going stark, raving bonkers.

I was doing pretty well through year’s end. The catalogs started rolling in before Thanksgiving, but I put them aside because I still had vegetables in my garden.

It always seems wrong to start my lists when I haven’t finished harvesting the current crop. And since I didn’t pull the last of the carrots and the celery root until Dec. 4, what followed was immediate distraction by the annual holiday hoopla.

Once I got past that, I initiated some serious sprout growing. Mung bean, lentil, alfalfa, broccoli and kale sprouts have all made appearances this month, gracing not only the dinner table, but also sitting atop a few breakfast dishes, too.

It helps satisfy that craving for something green, not only in the eating but in the growing.

Last week, however, I dreamed about a flower.

Not just any flower, but a picture-perfect flower in its frilly bower.

Its delicate aspect there in the late summer garden was – I’m sure – my mind’s rebuttal to the weather we’ve been having. As the cold gets colder and the only thing growing is the depth of snow, I stand amazed that anything ever grew anywhere, a fanciful notion I always seem to entertain from the abyss of winter.

So there, in my mind’s eye, was this dainty bloom. I could feel the fading heat of late afternoon sun and a touch of breeze. There was a steady buzz of bees around me and birds chattering away.

I felt cozy and calm, at peace with all and sundry.

Then I snapped a photograph.

Which is exactly what happened back in September as I wandered around the yard, ending up in the vegetable garden’s stand of annual flowers.

What caught my eye was the blink-and-you-missed-it blossom in a miniscule planting of Nigella damascena, its finely cut foliage providing a lacy backdrop. It simply made me happy, for I long have had a soft spot for this sweet flower.

N. damascena is better known as love-in-a-mist, a longtime cottage garden favorite that’s a member of the buttercup family. According to the Seed Savers Exchange catalog description, the flower made its first appearance in England around 1570. The plant’s origins are farther south, from the Mediterranean, North Africa and Asia.

The name, nigella, comes from the word niger, or black, which refers to the seed color, a striking black. That may seem an odd comment because black should be simply black, but this black seems to absorb every hint of light. The resulting color is as dark as the depth of night. Striking, indeed.

The nigella in my garden last summer was ‘Persian Jewels,’ a mix of white, pinks and blues resembling watercolors in hue. The flower is a tiny work of art, nestled in lacy green bracts and topped with a showy involucre, which are the bracts that usually are beneath the bloom.

But the show doesn’t end when the blossom fades. The resulting seedpod is used in dried bouquets, unique because of the curved “beaks” on the end.
The plant couldn’t be easier to grow; sowing in spring results in flowers in August and September. Some of the references I’ve seen say that you don’t want to transplant because the plant dislikes being disturbed, a characteristic that may contribute to the fact you don’t see six-packs of nigella at your local gardening center. It’s cheaper and smarter just to buy a seed packet and pop the seeds in where you want the plants to grow.

And that’s the other nice thing about nigella. It makes a superb filler for any little bare spots you might find, coming in around 18 inches tall – although mine always seem to flop over, creating more of a carpetlike effect.

There are a number of other varieties out there, including N. hispanica and N. papillosa, both of which are just variations on the theme. The Thompson & Morgan (tmseeds.com) catalog has two cultivars of N. papillosa: ‘African Bride’ and ‘Curiosity.’ I’ve grown the latter, a violet blue beauty whose blooms are larger than those of ‘Persian Jewels,’ while the former is a white variety. Both result in seedpods resembling spiders.

Yes, really. Creepy spiders.

I think I may also get a packet of N. bucharica ‘Blue Stars.’ New for this year, the catalog says, with blossoms of lavender blue that bear a resemblance to little balloon flowers with a puff in the center.

All this from one wee flower invading my dreams.

I think it was trying to tell me something: Start ordering.

And it’s good to go a little mad.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in January 2011.