Lovage (Levisticum officinalis)
Love Parsley, Garden Lovage, Italian Lovage, True Lovage, Maggi Herb, Old English Lovage, Cornish Lovage, Sea Parsley, Smallage, Smellage, Apio de Monte
About This Plant
Lovage is an herbaceous perennial with attractive deep green foliage that looks like an overgrown Celery plant. It is hardy in USDA zones 3-9 and is cold hardy to about -5 degrees fahrenheit. It is more tolerant of cold weather than it is of heat. It grows about three to four feet tall in mounded clumps. It is a fast grower, providing its first harvest within a few months of planting. The leaves, roots, stems and leaves are all edible and the entire plant has a strong odor.
The large, dark green radial leaves grow on erect stalks and are divided into narrow, wedge-like segments, reminiscent of both Celery and Angelica. The surface is shiny and when bruised gives off an aromatic odor. The stems are thick, erect, hollowed and channeled and grow up to four or more feet in height. They divide towards the top to form opposite whorled branches. The stems have a reddish tint to them when they first emerge from the soil.
Lovage sends up tall stalks that bloom in June and July, bearing flat umbels of tiny, yellow flowers, similar to those of fennel and parsnip, that attract lots of pollinators and beneficial insects. The flowers are followed by small, extremely aromatic fruits that are yellowish-brown in color, elliptical in shape and curled with three prominent winged ribs. The flowers are the most fragrant in July. The root is thick and fleshy, often five to six inches long but sometimes reaching as much as 35” long, and shaped like a carrot. It is greyish-brown on the outside and whitish within. It too has an aromatic smell and taste.
Lovage is a plant that is often found growing in ancient monastery gardens, especially in the Italian Alps where it is believed to have first been cultivated. It was always valued as a versatile herb. In the Middle Ages, Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was so fond of Lovage that he decreed it be grown in all of his gardens. It was known as Sea Parsley and Love Parsley and its seeds were used in Medieval love potions. Lovage was worn around the neck to ward off foul odors. Lovage was probably brought to Britain by the Romans and from there traveled to the American colonies and is now naturalized in much of the U.S.
Lovage seed can be erratic to germinate if not planted fresh. It requires cool conditions and has a long germination period. Because of these factors, it is ideal to plant fresh seeds once they are harvested in the fall. Seeds can be planted ½” deep. Seeds can also be planted outdoors in early Spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. Germination can take up to 20 days. Mature plants can also be divided in Spring to early Summer and in late Fall.
Lovage is a plant with taproots, so it’s important to transplant it before the taproots are well established. It can be transplanted when nighttime temps are at least 40 degrees fahrenheit. Plants can be spaced about two feet apart.
Lovage can take up a lot of room in your garden, so it’s important to find an appropriate place for it so it doesn’t overshadow shorter plants, such as in the back of the garden, or along a fence. Lovage can be used as a trap crop to lure tomato hornworms away from tomatoes, so you might consider it as a companion plant to tomatoes.
Lovage prefers partial or filtered shade. It will grow in direct sun in cooler summer regions. As a plant with long taproots, it doesn’t require frequent watering once established. The tender young growth has the best flavor, so in summer, around June, consider pruning Loveage back to force the growth of a new flush of leaves, and cut off flowers to encourage a busy growth. Lovage dies back in Winter and it’s a good idea to protect the roots with mulch. Lovage tends to get scraggly after it bolts and the leaves become bitter. Unless you want it to flower and set seed, cut off the developing flower stalk when it starts to form.
Leaves can be harvested all Summer and into Fall. The young and tender leaves are best. Harvest in the morning after the dew has dried. Start by snipping or pinching off the outside stalks first and working your way towards the center of the plant. Do not wash the leaves or the aromatic oils will be lost. Older leaves tend to yellow. Lovage is best used fresh as it tends to lose much of its fragrance and color once dried. Fresh cut leaves and stems can be blanched for about a minute and frozen in ice cube trays for later use.
Once Lovage has been established for several years, the roots can also be harvested for tea and cooking. Two to three-year old roots can be dug up with a garden fork just before flowering. Wash the roots and cut them into ½” pieces before drying for storage.
Lovage produces huge heads of seed in late summer. Ripe seeds turn from tan to brown.
Allow them to dry on the stalk, remove, and collect by rubbing seed heads gently between your palms over a bowl or bucket. Or, seed heads may also be bagged while still on the stalk to capture seeds as they ripen and fall.
Lovage tastes like Celery but a bit sweeter with a stronger flavor and with hints of anise and parsley. It is loaded with vitamins including Vitamin C and B-complex. It also contains quercetin which has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
In Italy, the leaves are used with Oregano and Garlic for Tomato sauces. Adding the chopped leaves to casseroles adds an interesting flavor. Lovage can be added to soups and sauces to reduce the need for salt. It will enhance the flavors of other vegetables, fish, rice, chicken or stuffing and has an affinity for potatoes. Lovage was used as a salad herb in Medieval times. One large leaflet, chopped and added to each serving is plenty so as to not overpower in flavor. The broad leaves also make an attractive garnish.
Lovage stems can be blanched and eaten like Celery or sliced and added to salads, stews, and soups. The stems can be preserved by pickling and in the 18th century were candied and used to make a cordial. The hollow stems can also be used as Bloody Mary straws. If chopped and frozen, stems will remain good for six months.
Roots are peeled to remove the bitter skin and are then used as a vegetable or are pickled. Roots can be grated and added to salad dressing for flavor. Seeds can be used crushed as you would Celery powder to season bread, soups, roasts, and cheese dishes. Used whole or ground, seeds can also be used in pickling brines, salad dressings, cheese spreads, and sauces as well as in baking.
In the 12th century, St. Hildegarde, known for visions and prophecies, recommended Lovage for the relief of abdominal pains, coughs, and heart problems. It has been used as a diuretic, a stimulant, an anti-inflammatory, to regulate menstrual cycles, and as a treatment for jaundice.
It is made into infusions, tinctures, and essential oils, as well as lozenges and vinegars. Salves made from the leaves can be applied to the skin to soothe rashes and psoriasis and to help clear up acne.
The roots and fruit are aromatic and stimulant with a diuretic and carminative action. They have traditionally been used for disorders of the stomach and feverish attacks, especially for cases of colic and flatulence in children. Lovage has a reputation of “exciting perspiration” and “opening obstructions”. All parts of the plant can be used as a diuretic and have traditionally been used for “irrigation therapy” for pain and inflammation of the lowers urinary tract, for prevention of kidney stones, or when fluid retention is present.
Chewing the leaves sweetens the breath and American colonists chewed the roots to stay alert. It is generally advised that anyone with heart or kidney problems, or pregnant or lactating avoid ingesting Lovage. It can interact with diuretic medication.
Lovage is native to the Meditrranean region and grows wild in the mountainous district of the south of France, in northern Greece and in the Balkans.