Dear Readers, when I was growing up in East London we had an allotment. I was allowed a little corner of it to plant a packet of ‘seeds for children’ – from memory, you could buy these in Woolworths, and they contained a mixture of marigolds, a strange plant that looked a bit like (and indeed might actually have been) knotgrass, and love-in-a-mist. How I loved the blue and white flowers and the dill-like leaves against the bright orange marigolds! And how my poor father loved picking out the love-in-a-mist from between the peas and the beans and the cabbages the following year after the plant had self-seeded.
This set me to wondering. Do they still have ‘seeds for children’? And do they still include love-in-a-mist? Well, Suttons certainly do. Indeed you can buy nigella seeds and they’re marketed as ‘Alien eggs’. Well, I can kind of see what they mean.
But what is this plant? Turns out that it’s a member of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family, and normally lives in southern Europe, north Africa and southwestern Asia. It is pretty much a weed of damp places in all these countries. But what a weed! Those china-blue flowers (which can also be coloured white or pink), the frond-like leaves and that strange bloated seedhead all give it an exotic charm. The seedhead is a behemoth compared to those of other members of the buttercup family – those of other species more closely resemble a tiny mace. Plus, as mentioned, it is ridiculously easy to grow – I found the specimen in my photos in a most inauspicious narrow bed at the side of a house in East Finchley, where it was popping up amongst the docks.
The species name ‘damascena’ refers to the city of Damascus, which is where it is said to have been found during the Crusades by the French knight Robert de Brie in 1570. On his return home to his castle in Champagne, de Brie is said to have planted the first ever nigella in France. No doubt from here the plant quickly hopped over the castle wall, swam across the moat and headed for the hills.
Those of you who experiment with Indian cookery may have used nigella seeds, but sadly these are not from this plant, but from Nigella sativa, a close relative. Indeed, the seeds of ‘our’ plant contain a poison called damascenine, so however much seed you harvest I would resist throwing it onto your naan bread. The plant may well have been used as a medicinal herb, however: there is evidence that it was brought to Austria in the Bronze Age by an immigrant population of miners. One possibility is that it was used as a vermifuge, to treat cases of intestinal worms – many poisonous plants were used in low doses in order to kill the parasites without killing the host. The plant is also said to be good for treating flatulence, though as Nigella sativa is said to be used to help with digestion I do wonder if there’s some confusion here. The seeds are also said to be used to keep insects out of clothing, so perhaps they would be handy against the clothes moths which seem to be everywhere in North London at the moment. Rubbing the seeds between the hands releases the essential oil, which is said to smell like strawberry jam.
The gardener Gertrude Jekyll was very taken with nigella, and included it in many of her cottage garden schemes. Indeed, the most popular of all the love-in-a-mist varieties is probably ‘Miss Jekyll’, a pale blue variety. Jekyll was a proponent of colour theory in her gardens, with blues and greys offset by vivid oranges and reds, so maybe my child’s seed selection wasn’t so far off the mark.
Of course, if you type ‘Nigella’ into Google you will not get this attractive little blue plant, but the rather attractive Nigella Lawson, cookery writer and TV presenter extraordinaire. I rather like Nigella. Her cookery shows on TV normally feature an episode in which she gets up in the middle of the night and spoons homemade icecream into her mouth illuminated only by the light from the refrigerator. Normally, she is wearing silk pyjamas and full make-up, and seems oblivious to the camera crew who have staked out her kitchen for just such an eventuality, much as wildlife photographers sit in a bush for weeks to catch sight of some nocturnal lemur. However, she is not named for this pretty little plant, but for her odious father Nigel Lawson, professional climate change denier and a man with no redeeming features whatsoever as far as I’m concerned. So sadly, we shall have to move swiftly on.
Incidentally, in Germany, nigella is known as ‘Gretel-in-the -bush’ – in the Germanic version of the fairy story, Gretel is turned into nigella, and Hansel into chicory (which is known as ‘Hansel-on-the-road’ – two little blue flowers separated forever by habitat.
Now, Ms Lawson has somewhat hampered my search for a nigella poem – my results have included many works celebrating her comely form and delicious recipes, largely penned by somewhat overheated male poets of a certain age. So, instead, here is a painting.
The artist, Sophie Gengembre Anderson, was the first woman to sell a painting for over £1m in the UK, and her painting ‘Elaine’ was the first public collection purchase of work by a woman artist, so there is lots here to celebrate. ‘Elaine’ was based on a poem by Tennyson, and was purchased by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.
Anderson was born in France, moved to the USA in 1848 to escape the Revolution of that year, and later lived in Falmouth in Cornwall. During her lifetime she painted everything from a series of portraits of bishops to still lives, but soon settled on the genre paintings that would make her name in the art world. She painted ‘Foundling Girls at Prayer in the Chapel’ for the Foundling Museum in London, where it still hangs. At a time when men were getting rich by painting decorative and sentimental images of children and women, Anderson managed to chip out a niche for herself. I suppose it’s not surprising that she isn’t as well-known as Sir Joshua Reynolds or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but to my eye she is every bit as accomplished.
And so, my nigella journey has taken me to some most unexpected places. In my minds-eye I am a little girl, leaning on my half-sized garden fork and looking over my tiny blue and orange flower-bed, while dad digs up the potatoes and wipes the sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand. I think I might even plant some nigella seed, just to have it in the garden to remind me.
Photo One by By Daniel Ullrich, Threedots – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=375714
Photo Three by By Cecile van Straten from Manila, Philippines – https://www.flickr.com/photos/chuvaness/29946044613/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61695788