May 06 2021

Do we care that the colored ‘petals’ of some flowers are actually sepals? Sepals are the usually green petal-like outermost structures that enclose a flower bud. Except sometimes they look like petals. Well, I care, if only because it makes me pause and take a closer look. Maybe get out my loupe and get up close and personal-another reminder of nature’s intricate workings.

Colored sepals are called petalloids-hydrangeas and clematis don’t have petals. To complicate matters further, when you can’t tell the difference between petals and sepals they are called tepals as in tulips and lilies. Consider the position and layers, if there is only one whorl it is sepals, more and you have petals and sepals. Lilies have three petals and three sepals, almost indistinguishable except they are in different layers.

The flower that started this train of thought is Love-in-a-Mist or Nigella. The common name is because the flowers float in a mist of fine feathery foliage. Other fun old names are Devil-in-a-Bush, Ragged Lady, and Love-in-a-Puzzle. Nigella is from the Latin word ‘niger’ meaning black for the black seeds which were used as a peppery spice before pepper was widely available. They are also medicinal-antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and possibly for fighting cancer, though a closely related species-Nigella sativa, also called fennel flower, purportedly has stronger flavor and medicinal qualities. It can be purchased as black cumin or kalonji, used in eastern medicine.

Nigella damascena-a common one we grow in our gardens-is native to Europe and North Africa (damascena from the city of Damascus) has anywhere from five to twenty-five sepals, yep the actual petals are those little tiny clawed things in a layer above the colorful sepals. The more common ones are blue with lots of sepals. ‘Miss Jekyll Blue’ named by famous English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll is the one I always picture first. The seed pods of Nigella are also nice in a dried arrangement.

Nigella comes in blue, pink, white, yellow, and pale purple. It is an annual and reseeds readily. You’ll want to thin the seedlings so they have room to grow to their full potential. Love-in-a-Mist has been around a long time, grown in Europe possibly from the 1500’s.

It’s a wonder to think of this flower (and so many others) passed down through the generations and carried around the world for centuries. Our lives are richer for it and it speaks to me of the rich heritage of all gardeners. From medieval Europe or earlier (Nigella sativa seeds were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb) to Gertrude Jekyll’s gardens to us. Aren’t we humans busy!

Love-in-a-Mist, Nigella damascena, ‘Miss Jekyll Blue’

Nigella papillosa, ‘Delft Blue’ (one shown)