Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is making a comeback. This hardy perennial member of the parsley family was grown in ancient monastery gardens. Other names for this herb are “sea parsley” and “love parsley”—its seeds were used in a medieval love potion. In the Middle Ages, the emperor Charlemagne so esteemed lovage that he decreed that it be grown in all his gardens.
Like many other ancient herbs, lovage originated in the Mediterranean region. Although its common names have romantic references, “lovage” is actually an alteration of the genus name Levisticum, which, as an alteration of Ligusticum, refers to the plant’s Ligurian origins. It was probably the Romans who brought it to Britain, and from there it traveled to the American colonies. The colonists found lovage hardy, easy to grow with minimal attention, and totally useful from the roots to the seeds. A large patch of lovage now thrives in the restored kitchen garden at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia, and the plant is naturalized in much of the U.S. (If you’re thinking of foraging for lovage, beware: it bears a striking resemblance to another large umbellifer, poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, which is extremely poisonous.)
• Lovage Cordial
• Loving Mary Cocktail
• Lovage Ratafia
We can personally attest to the durability of lovage. Our first seedling made it bravely through one of our typically brutal winters in the Allegheny Highlands. In cold climates such as ours (Zone 4), the top growth dies back in winter and comes back in spring, each year about a foot taller than the year before until it reaches 3 or 4 feet high. In hotter climates where it can’t achieve the necessary dormancy, it might not come back at all.
Starting lovage from seeds requires patience. Like many other herbs, it has a long germination period and requires cool conditions. Furthermore, the seed must be sown fresh. If you like a challenge and wish to give it a go, get fresh seeds from a nursery or the umbrella-shaped flower heads cut just as they are changing from green to tan. Dry them upside down in a paper bag to catch the seeds, and sow these immediately in a dark, cool place. Then wait. Alternatively, obtain seedlings from an herb nursery or beg a root division in fall or early spring from a friend who has an established plant. Lovage is so hardy and bushy that we doubt anyone would refuse your request.
Lovage likes rich, fertile soil and full sun, but it will tolerate some shade. Because it roots deeply, it doesn’t require frequent watering, which makes it a good choice for dry as well as cold climates. Just be sure to give it lots of room; it can grow as tall as 6 feet and as broad as 12 feet, depending how lusty its growth is in your climate. Its bushy form and deep green compound leaves make it an attractive foliage plant, but put it in the back of your garden or against a fence so it won’t overshadow shorter plants—especially in early summer when it sends up tall stalks bearing compound umbels of tiny yellow flowers.
Lovage also makes an impressive centerpiece in a circular herb garden. Given space, it rewards you with an exuberant greeting, its long, slender stalks and vivid green leaves rippling in the summer breeze.
You can harvest lovage’s irregularly toothed, wedge-shaped leaflets all summer and into fall, and this will help keep the plant attractive; older leaves tend to get yellow. The leaves lose much of their fragrance and color when dried; instead, blanch fresh leaves and young stems for about a minute and freeze them in ice cube trays for adding to soups and stews, or bring a plant indoors for the winter—it will be happiest near a sunny window but will tolerate less light. Its shiny leaves will cheer you on dark winter days as well as spicing up winter salads and soups. Potted in a graceful, deep terra-cotta container, lovage makes a lovely, though short-lived, house plant.
You can also dig the fragrant roots in autumn for delicious teas and soups after the plant has been established outdoors for several years. Just wash them, cut them into 1/2-inch-thick pieces, and dry them. A lovage tea made in the winter from the dried roots, which are also sometimes available in health food stores, seems to have the same cheering effect that the plant has in the garden.
Lovage as Food and Medicine
The roots, stems, and leaves of lovage have long been used for medicinal purposes, especially as a diuretic. Chewing the leaves was said to sweeten the breath, and the seeds were crushed and taken for improving digestion. American colonists chewed the roots as we chew gum to stay alert.
Lovage once also had cosmetic uses. A tincture of the leaves was made to clear up skin rashes and spots, and put in the bath for fragrance and cleansing. Lovage was the original air freshener—medieval ladies wore a bunch of it around their neck to ward off odors.
Lovage has an intriguing taste somewhere between those of parsley and celery, and most people familiar with lovage today know it as a flavorful culinary herb. Lovage leaves perk up the flavor of otherwise bland foods. Add them to soups or sauces to reduce the need for salt; they will enhance the flavors of other vegetables or fish. Lovage has a special affinity for potatoes in soup or salad. Its fragrance calls up images of the cloistered gardens of medieval monasteries in southern France or the ancient herb gardens in the Italian alps, where lovage was first cultivated.
A salad herb in medieval times, lovage still makes an excellent addition to any green salad. One large leaflet chopped up in each serving of salad is plenty, as the flavor is quite strong. The broad leaves make an attractive garnish for any dish.
In the eighteenth century, the seeds and stems were candied like angelica and the seeds used to make a cordial. Dried lovage seeds are similar to caraway seeds, and can also be used in bread. Queen Victoria liked to carry candied lovage seeds in pockets she had sewn into the hems of her dresses to hold tidbits to satisfy her sweet tooth between meals. We find them an acquired taste, however.
More Ways to Use Lovage
• Rub the salad bowl with fresh lovage.
• Make a lovage bouquet garni: Tie into a muslin bag 1 tablespoon chopped lovage, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, 1 teaspoon savory, 6 whole peppercorns, and a bay leaf.
• Use the hollow stems as drinking straws.
• Grate the roots of mature plants and add to salad dressing.
• Make a skin cleanser with 1 cup chopped lovage leaves, 3/4 cup white wine vinegar, and 11/2 cups distilled water. Steep the mixture overnight and strain.
• For a relaxing bath, pour 1 quart of boiling distilled water over 1 cup lovage leaves, 1/2 cup lovage root, 1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, and 1 tablespoon eucalyptus leaves. Let steep until liquid is just warm, then strain and add to bath water.
• Dry flower stalks to use in wreaths and flower arrangements or as brushes for basting meat on the grill.
Lovage recently has been celebrated on the stages of London and New York. In Peter Shaffer’s play Lettice and Lovage, the heroine drinks a medieval-style “quaff” of one part mead, one part lovage, and a large part vodka to celebrate the beauty of the past. The ingredients were well chosen. Celery may have pushed lovage out of the garden for a while, but as more people discover its appealing qualities and more herb nurseries carry lovage plants, this extremely pleasing and useful herb is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance.
Linda Underhill is a freelance food writer in Alfred, New York. Her partner, Jeanne Nakjavani, is a gourmet cook and food developer in Bradford, Pennsylvania.