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Forklore: Mist seed

July 22, 2012 |  9:00 am

Forklore sigA lot of gardens have a place for the striking ornamental plant love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena or N. hispanica). It gets its English name from the fact that its dainty blue or white flowers hide shyly among a mass of thread-thin leaves.

You might not be aware that the crunchy, pitch-black seeds of love-in-a-mist are edible--they have a sweet, charcoaly, oregano-like flavor. In fact, nigella seed is one of the spices bakers most often sprinkle on bread in the Arab world, where it's known as habbat baraka, "seed of grace." Rather confusingly, some writers call this spice "black cumin," though it isn't related to cumin at all, and there are some genuine black cumins in Asia. (In their defense, the writers are only copying the usage of some Indian languages.)

In English, we know nigella by a name describing the plant's appearance, but most cultures are bedazzled by the blackness of the seeds. Nigella is known as siyah daneh or "black seed" in Iran and Central Asia, and a name often used in India is kalaunji , meaning something like "black crooked thing," probably referring to the angular shape of the seeds. And in Russian, it's chernushka , which means "little black thing." Come to think of it, that's what nigella means in Latin too.

--Charles Perry