Lovage -levisticum officinale, Koch – is a giant in the herb world. The average height is six feet tall; it’s not uncommon to find nine footers, towering over the garden, looking like celery on steroids. In taste as well as in looks it resembles celery, but it’s much sharper and stronger. In parts of Europe it’s known as ‘Maggiplant’ or ‘Maggikraut’ because it’s the dominant flavor in Maggi soup seasoning. It has been widely used for cookery in Europe throughout the ages. It was one of the most prominent flavorings in Roman cuisine and is still used in tomato sauces, usually combined with oregano. The Germans use it in potato dishes, and it’s popular in soups and stews yet for some reason, it’s little used in the U.S..
The leaves are what are most often used in food; the seeds and roots have the same flavor but much stronger. The large (up to 2 feet long), hollow leafstalks and the seeds can be candied like angelica is. The leafstalks and the lower stems can be used like celery. For this use, dirt is usually mounded up over the bottom of the plant. With the sunshine blocked from this area, the stems are paler and not as strongly flavored.
For some reason, what is sold in the spice section of the store as lovage seed is frequently ajwain, while what is sold as celery seed is frequently part lovage seed! I’m going to guess that it’s used to adulterate celery seed because of the massive amounts of seed one plant can make and the fact that it’s a perennial, which saves the farmer a lot of time and energy.
Lovage is a fairly strong diuretic and lovage tea is said to stimulate the digestion. In tests, lovage proved to have high amounts of quercitrin, a powerful flavinoid that exhibits anti-inflammatory activity; the only plant with higher amounts is capers. Given the ease with which lovage be grown versus the cost of a bottle of capers, I’d say that the lovage would be the way to go if you’re interested in using quercitrin. A study last year showed that quercitrin could be of some benefit for bowel inflammation when used in combo with omega-3 fatty acids.
Lovage root oil is used in tiny amounts in perfumery. It can be used as a warm background note in spicy fragrances, especially those with carnation in them. It’s one of the most penetrating natural items in the perfumer’s arsenal.
In the garden, lovage is one of those monster plants that grabs the attention. It can become as wide as it is tall, so give it plenty of room. While needing a lot of moisture, it must not sit in standing water or it will rot. Happy in sun or shade and not too picky about soil, it benefits from a yearly application of compost but doesn’t seem to need it to survive as I’ve seen it growing in hard clay. Propagate by division or from fresh seed- you’ll have plenty of both. After about three years, you’ll need to remove the oldest parts of the plant to give the younger divisions room to spread. Ideally this is done in early spring. To get more young leaf growth (young leaves are the best for cooking), cut the flowering stem off when it starts to come up. This will divert the energy back to vegetative growth and also stop the seed production. The flower is interesting- a gigantic, pale yellow Queen Anne’s Lace umbel- and the seeds can be used for cooking, too, but do you really need 5000 lovage plants coming up all over your garden as thick as grass? If you do want the seeds for culinary use, put a paper bag over the flower after it starts to fade and tie it tightly. It keeps the seeds clean and easy to harvest, and stops the Day of the Triffids effect of lovage spreading in the garden. One plant usually provides more leaves and seed than one family can use. In the fall, cut the entire plant down to the ground. The big hollow stems will usually be full of water, so watch out if you don’t want your feet soaked.
Even if you have no interest in lovage as an herb, the plant makes a dramatic addition to the garden. Few perennials grow so huge. Put it in a boring corner or use it to hide the trash cans. As a member of the Umbelliiferae family, it attracts beneficial insects that can reduce your use of pesticides. And it’s just kind of fun to have a plant so big that it makes people say “What the heck is THAT?!?!” when the come into your garden.