Love-in-a-mist. To a horticulturist, this one-word poem describes more than a romantic adventure in San Francisco. Love-in-a-mist is the name of a plant that feels at home in almost any garden and makes several different, distinct impressions in the course of the year. Each impression is eagerly anticipated.
In the fall and winter, as this annual plant develops, it has finely laced light green leaves that approximate those of carrot, cilantro or fennel. “Fennel flower,” in fact, is one of its common names, although it bears no botanical relationship to the true fennel, belonging instead to the delicately leafed Ranunculus family that includes buttercup, meadow rue and columbine.
Love-in-a-mist flowers, which appear in spring and summer, are either white, rose or pale blue, the latter color most typically seen. Flowers are followed by diaphanous seed capsules that resemble exotic globe-shaped paper lanterns.
Love-in-a-mist seeds drop from their capsules in late summer or early fall. If immediately watered, the seeds germinate with the first fall or winter rain. Within a few years, love-in-a-mist will spread, through dissemination of its seeds, over large areas that are exposed to full or partial sun. The hotter the summer, the more it will benefit from sun protection. It seems to grow more lush planted on the east than on the west side of a building.
The more densely love-in-a-mist grows, the more plush its soft green carpet effect will be this time of year. To maximize the duration of flowering later on, it should be thinned out now while still in the vegetative (preflowering) growth stage. The literature indicates that seedlings after thinnning should be 7 to 10 inches apart. However, after love-in-a-mist has established itself, with hundreds of seedlings growing in the space of a few square feet, the prospect of thinning seems too tedious to be taken seriously.
Love-in-a-mist is not a drought-tolerant ground cover in the manner of gazania, ice plant or trailing rosemary. It will need a good soaking at least once a week in hot weather, as opposed to most perennial ground covers, which should not need watering more than once a week throughout the year.
Lov-in-a-mist has a botanical name, Nigella damascena (pronounced Ni-JELL-uh dam-a-SEE-nuh), which hints at its characteristics and its origins. Nigella is derived from niger, the Latin word for black, and refers to the angular black seeds of this plant. Damascena indicates that it grows wild in and around the city of Damascus. The seeds of some Nigella species, when heated, are reputed to have a nutty, peppery flavor resembling that of oregano and are used in the Middle East and India for spicing up salads, vegetables, bread and fish. Herbal healers grind these seeds into a paste and mix them with honey for treatment of flu, asthma and upper-respiratory conditions.
Seed capsules of love-in-a-mist will last all winter in everlasting dry flower arrangements. To prepare the capsules properly, detach them from the plant before they split open and hang them upside down for several weeks in a dry and shady place before placing them in your bouquet.
Like most flower seeds, love-in-a-mist benefits from soil that is above average in fertility. Like most seeds, it is also supposed to be planted shallowly and covered with half an inch of soil, although sowing it on the soil surface during this time of year should still result in germination. Packets of love-in-a-mist seeds should be available at most nurseries and garden centers. In Southern California, they may be planted in fall, winter or spring.
Tip of the week
If you want to contribute to the beautification of your community, contact the Village Gardeners of the Los Angeles River, a nonprofit group that came into being following the Northridge Earthquake. I have met some of the village gardeners, who are unusually devoted to their cause. They refused to allow their names to be printed here, not wishing to take credit for their group’s achievements. For more information on the group and how to participate in its activities, which center around the Los Angeles River embankments in Studio City and Sherman Oaks, call (818) 981-1606.
Photo credit: THE Holy Hand Grenade! / Foter.com / CC BY-ND