The Friends of the Library are coming tomorrow for a potluck. Tidy gardeners all, they are sure to frown on that patch of dried-out nigella stalks by the blueberries. This gives me extra incentive to harvest the seeds today.
Nigella damascena, or love-in-a-mist, is an annual beloved by less-tidy gardeners for its lovely little blue, white, pink, and violet flowers surrounded by delicate, lacy foliage. The flowers develop into pods rather like those of opium poppies. When the pale green pods have turned golden and their little black seeds rattle inside, many gardeners cut the stalks and save them for winter arrangements.
This is what I had in mind, too, the first year I grew love-in-a-mist. But my small daughter, an incorrigible browser then and now, told me they had a more practical use. “Taste the seeds, Mama! They’re good!”
I chided her, as I always did, for eating whatever plants lay in her path. But my curiosity got the better of me, and so I asked what the seeds tasted like. Raised on natural foods, she couldn’t place the flavor. But I could, as soon as I gingerly bit into one of the black, teardrop-shaped seeds: Grape Kool-Aid!
N. damascena is closely related to N. sativa, which in India, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East is beloved at least as much for its culinary and medicinal purposes as for its ornamental value. The seeds are used in and on breads, like sesame seeds and poppy seeds. In India, where nigella seeds are called kalonji or onion seeds (for their appearance, not their flavor), they are briefly fried or toasted and added to pickles, chutneys, and sauces. The seeds are believed to ameliorate digestive, respiratory, rheumatic, and skin problems, and some of these medicinal benefits have been scientifically confirmed.
I harvest nigella by pulling the stalks from the ground and turning them upside-down into a paper grocery bag. Because I’ve waited a bit too long to harvest, as many as half the seeds scatter to the ground in the process. That’s fine with me; they will grow into next year’s crop.
However hard I shake them, the pods will hang on to some of their seeds, so on a windy day I’ll scatter the stalks where I want more love-in-a-mist to grow. Then I’ll winnow the seeds left in the bottom of the paper bags. I’ll store the clean seeds in a jar, and I’ll take some out now and then to sprinkle on top of bread just before baking it.
If I serve the bread to company, I’ll wait for my guests to ask what the strange black seeds are. Before I tell them, I’ll ask what the seeds taste like. Grape Kool-Aid, anyone?
August 20, 2009: Joanne from Lake Oswego tells me that N. sativa is available from Penzey’s as charnushka. Russians and Poles sprinkle charnushka (chernushka, czarnuszka) on top of rye bread before baking it.
November 29, 2009: I recently bought some seeds of N. sativa from the San Francisco Herb Company. They look like N. damascena, but their flavor is not at all foxy. I can best describe it as bitter–though less bitter than, say, celery seeds–and complex, dark, almost smoky. I hope I like them better on bread.
December 4, 2020: I still harvest Nigella damascena seeds and eat them year around. I still love their fragrance and flavor. And I still don’t know anyone else who eats them!