By Jackie Johnson ND, Northeast Wisconsin Unit of The Herb Society of America
Known to many as the herb that smells like celery, lovage (Levisticum officinale) has been used for centuries as medicine and food. In modern times it has fallen out of favor and is found infrequently in gardens now.
Lovage is a zone 3 – 9 plant, so we northerners can grow it too! It’s a plant that can get up to seven feet tall in the right conditions so it has been used as a backdrop in ancient and modern gardens. Originally a native to the Mediterranean area, and one of the plants found in the gardens of Charlemagne (742-814 AD), it was brought to America by the early colonists.
Seed germination is difficult; it requires stratification and has only about a 50% germination rate. The best propagation method is through division and spring plantings do better than fall.
This plant, loaded with vitamin C and B’s, is among the first out of the ground in the spring, offering itself for nourishment and flavor.
The flowers are a yellow to yellow-green umbel and known to be good for pollinators. They are a host to parasitic wasps that eat tent caterpillars too – a very good thing.
Lovage has proven itself to be versatile. You can use the leaves, the stems and the seeds. The hollow celery-flavored and aromatic stems are great in Bloody Marys. The leaves are good in egg salad, potato and pasta salads, and in frittatas. They are stronger than celery, so start with a little and work up.
The leaves can also be added to soups and stews. The smaller leaves are milder. Keep cutting them back to prevent flowering as they become a bit bitter after flowering. A favorite vinegar of mine is to add a few lovage leaves to the chive flowers in an apple cider vinegar. It makes a wonderful salad dressing base.
When harvesting, start in the morning after the dew has dried. Dry the leaves quickly to retain color, they will turn yellow if the drying process is too long. Leaves can also be frozen. Blanch them first and then put them in very cold water for a couple minutes. Lay them on trays in the freezer and when frozen, transfer to containers.
Lovage is one of the oldest salad greens. Long before celery was common, lovage was used in salads, stews and soups. Lovage has been added to foot baths and baths (for skin problems), chewed on for bad breath, and as a tea for digestion and gas. If you harvest the seed, it can be added to your cooking – and bread making — much like fennel.
If you’re not already growing it, put lovage in your garden planning for 2018.
Caution: Lovage should not be used during pregnancy or by those with kidney disease or weak kidneys.