Save for the azure of the oceans and the heavens, blue is a rare color in nature. In 17th Century Europe, when Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Peter Paul Rubens were painting masterworks, ultramarine blue pigment was a precious commodity.
The lapis lazuli which yielded the pigment was mined in faraway Afghanistan and cost more than its weight in gold. That is why lesser artists had to use cheaper, far inferior pigments to approximate the color.
Blue flowers are rare, too, because the chemistry that creates this pigment in the world of plants is delicate and complex. The plants that do achieve it often use the same compounds that usually give flowers and fruit red, purple, and black shades.
Nature alters them through chemical trickery – often by increasing the pH in their cells – to make them appear blue.
Love-in-a-mist, Nigella damascena, is a charming, old-fashioned flower that blooms white, pink, purple, and – quite famously – blue in spring and early summer. But the genus name Nigella comes from the Latin niger, which refers to the plant’s black seeds.
The plant comes from southern Europe and northern Africa. In its native habitat, this annual garden plant of the buttercup family grows in fields, along roadsides, and in rocky or waste ground.
A Misty Blue Garden Standout
Love-in-a-mist grows a stately 15 to 24 inches high and can spread a canopy of delicate, slender leaves 10 or 12 inches wide when not crowded.
The plant’s leaves resemble those of fennel. When flowering, love-in-a-mist will issue a filigree shroud of green sepals to surround the blooms, hence its evocative name.
Each flower is about 1 ½ inches across and is followed by an attractive, balloon-shaped “seedpod,” which is actually an inflated capsule of five fused true seedpods. The pods can grow up to two inches long and are green with purple or bronze stripes.
Love-in-a-mist looks ravishing in the garden even when not in bloom, with its handsome foliage and eye-catching seedpods, which remain after flowering. Given its striking appearance, the plant is also surprisingly easy to grow.
How to Grow Love-in-a-Mist
Love-in-a-mist grows best in full sun in well drained, fertile soil. When it grows in its native areas, the plant prefers moist sandy soil with a neutral pH. Despite its delicate appearance, the plant can tolerate somewhat dry conditions, too, as well as other types of soil, including loam, clay-loam, and gravelly soil.
To grow your own love-in-a-mist, simply sow the black, sharp-cornered seeds about an eighth of an inch deep where you want the plants to sprout. Begin sowing as soon as you can work the soil in early spring, when soil temperatures reach 60° F (15.5°C).
You don’t need to cover the seeds with soil, but they do need to be pressed down slightly into the planting bed and kept moist. The seeds should germinate within two to three weeks. Once they’ve sprouted, thin the seedlings until they are two to nine inches apart.
You can also start the seeds indoors about four to six weeks before you plant to transplant outdoors. In this case, sow the seeds in individual peat pots and transplant with utmost care. Love-in-a-mist does not transplant well because of the plant’s long taproot.
The plant tolerates frost so it is primarily a spring and fall annual. That said, you should note that love-in-a-mist does not grow well in hot weather.
Caring for Your Plants and Blooms
Love-in-a-mist has a short bloom period – only a month or two. You should make successive plantings every three weeks if you want continuous blooms all summer. The plants should begin blooming about three months after planting.
Once your plants have begun to scatter seed on their own, you won’t need to continue sowing. But be sure to thin any new seedlings to prevent overcrowding.
Deadheading will prolong flowering but will entail the removal of the beautiful seedpods. Spring-seeding often produces smaller plants with smaller flowers.
In many places, you can sow in summer or fall to cultivate seedlings that overwinter and grow earlier and larger the following spring.
The beautiful N. damascena is virtually problem-free once established. That is perhaps because the plants don’t live long enough to be bothered by pests or disease.
To dry the seed pods, harvest them while the stripes are still visible. Hang the pods upside down in a dry, dark, airy place. Place them in paper bags to contain the seeds.
You would do well to divide the pods into small batches in separate bags to ensure more rapid drying.
You can use both the flowers and the decorative green and burgundy seed pods in fresh or dried arrangements.
Your cut flowers will last longer if you remove the leaves from the lower part of the stem.