Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is making a comeback, with roots tracing centuries back through time. This hardy perennial member of the parsley family is also known as “sea parsley” and “love parsley” — and rightly so, as its seeds were used in a medieval love potion. Ancient monastery gardens also sported this versatile herb. In the Middle Ages, Charlemagne, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, 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 (another genus in the carrot family), refers to the plant’s Ligurian origins. The Romans probably 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 wholly useful, from the roots to the seeds. Nowadays, the plant is naturalized in much of the United States. If you’re thinking of foraging for lovage, though, beware: it bears a striking resemblance to another large umbellifer — poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), which, as the name suggests, is extremely poisonous.
Interest in lovage is growing in the present day, and you can incorporate this ancient herb into your garden, using some of its rich history as a guide along the way. Admire lovage’s bushy form as it grows, harvest different parts of the plant, and utilize it for an array of purposes.
Medicinal History and Culinary Usages of Lovage
The roots, stems, and leaves of lovage have long been used medicinally, 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 also chewed the roots to stay alert.
Lovage once had cosmetic uses as well. A tincture of the leaves was made to clear up skin rashes and spots, and it was placed in baths for fragrance and cleansing. Lovage also worked as an air freshener: medieval women wore it around their necks to ward off odors. Today, 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 is believed to have been first cultivated.
For the curious palate, lovage has an intriguing flavor, somewhere between those of parsley and celery, and most people familiar with lovage today know it as a flavorful culinary herb. Its leaves perk up the flavor of otherwise bland foods. Add them to soups or sauces to reduce the need for salt; they’ll also enhance the flavors of other vegetables or fish. Notably, lovage has a special affinity for potatoes in soup or salad.
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 also make an attractive garnish for any dish.
In the 18th century, the seeds and stems were candied and 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 so she could satisfy her sweet tooth between meals. We find them an acquired taste, however.
Lovage has even been featured on the stages of London and New York. In Peter Shaffer’s play “Lettice and Lovage,” first produced in 1987, 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.
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 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 seed requires patience. Like many other herbs, it has a long germination period and requires cool conditions. Furthermore, you must sow the seed while it’s fresh. If you like a challenge and wish to give it a go, get fresh seeds from a nursery. Or, you can try harvesting seed from the umbrella-shaped flower heads by cutting the flowers just as they’re changing from green to tan. Then, dry them upside-down in a paper bag to catch the seeds. Sow the seeds immediately in a dark, cool place, then wait. Alternatively, obtain seedlings from an herb nursery, or ask for 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 much as 6 feet tall and 12 feet wide, depending on how lusty its growth is in your climate. Its bushy form and deep-green compound leaves make it an attractive foliage plant. That being said, plant 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 a flavorful addition to soups and stews. You can also 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 spice up winter salads and soups. Potted in a graceful, deep, terra-cotta container, lovage makes a lovely (though short-lived) house plant.
After the plant has been established outdoors for several years, you can also dig the fragrant roots in autumn for delicious teas and soups. Simply wash them, cut them into 1⁄2-inch-thick pieces, and dry them. A lovage tea made in winter from the dried roots, which are sometimes available in health food stores, seems to have the same cheering effect that the plant exudes in the garden.
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.
How to Use the Lovage Herb
Over the centuries, people have used this ancient plant in a variety of ways. From food garnishes to herbal remedies, reap lovage’s benefits for present-day enjoyment. Here are some of our favorite usages:
- Rub your salad bowl with fresh lovage before adding your ingredients.
- Make a lovage bouquet garni: 1 tablespoon chopped lovage, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, 1 teaspoon savory, 6 whole peppercorns, and a bay leaf in a muslin bag and tie shut.
- Cut off the hollow stems and use them as drinking straws.
- Grate the roots of mature plants and add to salad dressing for flavor.
- Make a skin cleanser with 1 cup chopped lovage leaves, 3/4 cup white wine vinegar, and 1-1/2 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.
Where to Buy Lovage Seeds
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
- Everwilde Farms
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds
- Seed Savers Exchange
- Strictly Medicinal Seeds
Enjoy lovage’s unique taste in this Lovage & Turkey Meatball Soup Recipe.
Linda Underhill, author and freelance food writer, wrote this article with her partner Jeanne Nakjavani, gourmet cook and food developer.