A Little Lovage Goes a Long Way
Copyright ©1998. This article may not be reproduced in part or in whole without permission of the author.
Lovage—What it lacks in popularity, it makes up for in size. Under relatively unfussy conditions, a tiny lovage seed can produce a plant that will reach a whopping 5 feet in height—and every bit of the plant, from the top leaves to the deep root, can be used in the kitchen.
A member of the carrot, or Umbelliferae, family, lovage has been cultivated since ancient Greek and Roman times. It is native to the Mediterranean region and Asia Minor. In other parts of the world, it has escaped from gardens into the wild, as in Great Britain, where it was grown by the conquering Romans, and in America, to which it was brought by early colonists. A patch of lovage still graces Thomas Jefferson’s famed gardens in Monticello.
The Greeks first chewed ligustikon seeds as a digestive aid. Benedictine monks used lovage roots as an ingredient in a stomach-settling cordial during the Middle Ages, and Charlemagne decreed that it be grown in all of his gardens. Over the centuries, lovage has been grown and harvested as a soothing bath cologne, diuretic, treatment for rheumatism and migraine, and as a love charm and aphrodisiac, a usage that gave birth to its nickname of "love parsley". Its botanical name, Levisticum officinale , is a corruption of its earlier name, Ligusticum, a designation that acknowledged the abundance of lovage in fields around Liguria, Italy.
Lovage, like its more diminutive carrot and parsley cousins, thrives in rich, moist, well drained soil in sun or light shade. It does not like heavy clay. Experts recommend that, as with carrots and parsley, lovage seeds should be sown where the plants will be grown, as the roots do not take well to being disturbed. We take a more unorthodox approach on our farm, as germinating lovage takes patience and the right conditions. To assure a good crop, we prefer transplanting lovage rather than sowing it directly into the field. The germination rate for lovage is, at best, about 50 percent. Fresh seed is imperative. It requires a long, relatively cool period to germinate; three weeks at about 70 degrees is not unusual. We’ve found that we can minimize transplant shock by sowing seed in oversized plugs or containers; a 5-inch pot for each plant is not overly generous. This allows each plant to grow large enough for transplanting into the field without growing so large that the expansion of its roots is impeded. It also provides us with a large block of well prepared soil to get each plant off to a good start in the garden.
When it’s time to set the seedlings out, give them room; lovage can spread as much as 12 feet. We work well aged compost into each planting hole, water it in, set out the tiny plant with its big soil block, water again, and mulch. Evenly applied moisture, scrupulous weeding and a side-dressing or two of compost during planting season will keep the plant growing well. We understand that the roots can be divided and replanted in the autumn to expand the lovage bed, but we’ve had no experience with this. We do know that the roots will survive Maine winters. Even in zone 4, the top growth dies back but, if deeply mulched, it will come back in the spring and grow even taller than in the year before.
As a culinary herb, every part of vitamin C-laden lovage has a use. It is prized for its glossy green salad leaves, and continued harvesting will keep the plant more attractive.
Young stems can be candied. The celery-like stalks are a welcome addition to soups and stews, with the added benefit of being able to survive long cooking times without losing their flavor. You can preserve lovage by blanching its leaves and stalks, then freezing them; they do not dry well.
Some people like to add the slightly bitter roots to the stock pot. The roots also can be chopped and dried to use in tea, or powdered for use as a seasoning. The large flower umbels can be dried and used to decorate foods. The seeds are useful as soup seasoning and as a candied confection popularized by Queen Victoria, this latter use being an acquired taste. The practical Pennsylvania Germans use the hollow stems as naturally flavored straws. The parsley-celery flavor of lovage particularly enhances potatoes and subtly flavored vegetables, such as summer squash.
Lovage Bouquet Garni
Combine 1 tablespoon each of chopped lovage, summer savory and parsley, 1 bay leaf and half a dozen whole peppercorns in a muslin bag. Use to flavor soups and stews.
Lovaged White Fish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a baking pan. Line it with lovage leaves. Set the fish on top of the leaves. Sprinkle with freshly ground pepper. Top with bread crumbs. Add a few lemon slices overall. Bake until the fish is translucent.
Lovage Mary Cocktail
Combine first five ingredients in a lidded glass jar and let the mixture age for one month.
Strain. Combine with tomato and lemon juices, Worcestershire and horseradish in a glass pitcher and stir vigorously. Pour into glasses over ice, garnish with lemon and serve with lovage stalk straws.
Ellie MacDougall grows herbs in Wells, Maine. You can take a virtual tour of her farm at