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Nigella damascena flowerNigella damascena

The name of this plant comes from a legend about the Emperor Frederick I (1125-1190), who drowned in a shallow Turkish river as he was leading a Crusade. According to the story, he was seduced by a water spirit with green hair who drowned him in the hip-deep water. This plant sprang up at the shore and displays the water spirit's hair. I like the contrast between the image of the mighty emperor and the delicate, innocent-looking plant (by the way, the "spikes" are very soft and not sharp). water spiritThis magic herb is also known as bride-in-hair from the Renaissance tradition of a bride going to her wedding with her hair down to signify her virginity (lots of Maiden stuff going on here). We normally think of Venus-ruled plants as aids to love spells and such, but this legend hints at a great feminine power. The alchemist and physician Geber recognized this plant's power when he named it as an ingredient in his red elixir. Some of love-in-a-mist's other common names--jack in prison, love-in-a-tangle, and devil-in-a-bush--show that airy-fairy love spells can be as binding and as powerful as the worst hex or curse. This plant is associated with the sign Libra and with St. Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of maidens and female students, who spoke to Joan of Arc. St. Catherine is nowadays considered to be a fictional character created by the Church as a counter to the real person of Hypatia of Alexandria (370-416 CE), the great pagan mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who was murdered by a Christian mob. Although later Christians mythologized her as a saint, she in fact never became a Christian. So we've got a crooked mirror image--a fictional Christian saint who we are told falsely was martyred by pagans, and a real pagan who was actually martyred by Christians and then later depicted by Christians as having been martyred by Egyptian pagans! I think these two stories go well with this plant and how its flower is both set off and caged by the frothy/soft/spikey leaves around it. Consider this plant, then, for works which involve glamours, shapeshifting, and other trickery. St. Catherine is depicted as having been a virgin; Hypatia actually remained one. Once again, we see the Maiden coming through. In the Victorian language of flowers, which better fits with how this plant can be used for love charms, love-in-a-mist means "kiss me" or "you puzzle me."

Nigella damascena podIn India, the seeds are used as a sachet to keep bugs out of clothing. Rubbing them releases the scent of strawberry jam, which is what its essential oil smells like. The seeds are used in cooking--flavoring for curry and a sprinkle on bread--and supposedly taste like nutmeg but are nowhere near as good as those of its relative, Nigella sativa (black cumin). At one time the seeds were roasted and an ill person breathed in the "fumes" to "drie the braine," and it is mentioned by Dioscorides and Theophrastus for digestive complaints. This native of warm areas of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East was introduced into England in 1570 and since then has become naturalized in various places. Thomas Jefferson grew love-in-a-mist in his garden. It was later popularized by gardener Gertrude Jekyll in her recreations of cottage gardens, and some varieties bear her name. Indeed, it makes good cut flowers, and the pods are nice dried--try them as an addition to wreaths and bouquets for handfasting. Bees enjoy the flowers. This plant looks especially nice planted with silvery companions like lavender or lamb's ears. Love-in-a-mist is also known as wild fennel, ragged lady, spiders legs, jack in prison, lady in the green, love entangled, love-in-a-tangle, love-in-a-puzzle, love-in-the-shade, Our Lady In The Shade, devil-in-a-bush, lady in a bower, garden black seed, hair of Venus, black caraway, and Damascus black cumin.

How to grow love-in-a-mist:
Love-in-a-mist bushDirect sow seeds outside as soon as the soil can be worked in spring. When direct sowing, I like to thoroughly work up the soil, breaking up all clods, and gently smooth flat, water, sprinkle on the seeds, lightly cover them with a layer of fine  compost, and then gently firm with the flat of a rake or hoe. You can also direct sow in fall if your winters are not harsh, or you can start inside, but they get a tap root and sometimes such plants can be cranky to transplant. The seeds germinate in 2 weeks at room temperature. Set 6"/15cm apart. Site them in full sun but away from legumes, which love-in-a-mist can hinder. This plant gets 24"/60 cm tall and produces pink, white, mauve, purple, and blue flowers and maroon-striped Cthulhu pods. It self-seeds readily. General growing info

Nigella damascena
100 seeds $3.50

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Uses  in Witchcraft & Magic:

Binding Spells (Love or Hexing)
Honoring Hypatia
Elemental (Water) Magic
Venus Herb

2007, 2018 Harold A. Roth; No reproduction without permission