Jane McLeod: A summer of lovage

Herb with sharp biting taste, refreshing aroma great in salads

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— Maybe it is the name. Maybe it is because it is impossible to miss, often reaching some six feet in a few years, standing ramrod straight like a sentry guarding a flock of more discreet sized herbs. Maybe it is the sharp biting taste or the refreshing aroma. Whatever the reason, I always want lovage (Levisticum officinale) in my herb garden.

Lovage is a handsome, vigorous plant with a powerful flavor (reminiscent of celery) and, although I can’t honestly name a great long list of culinary uses, I am content adding the leaves to salads and substituting them for lettuce in a sandwich. They also add flavor to stocks, soups and stews. I’ve even seen suggestions to pickle, peel, boil or crystallize the stems, but that doesn’t really appeal to me. I suppose some cooks feel obliged to figure out ways to use all of this herb because there is a lot of plant to work with, but I never worry about that and just pick the tenderest new leaves (the older ones can get bitter) as needed. It’s also a handy filler of green in a bouquet of summer posies if you really feel obligated to figure out more uses.

This herb likes full sun but can tolerate partial shade. It is a bit fussier about the soil and does best if it is rich, moist and well drained. The leaves are large, aromatic, toothed, deeply divided and glossy, dark green on long stems. The stems are hollow, ridged, round and branch near the top. This herb will flower in our climate and tiny, pale greenish-yellow clusters opening up like an umbrella will appear from mid- to late summer followed by oblong brown seeds. Propagate from seeds or root cuttings making sure each piece of root has a shoot or eye. The roots are thick but fleshy, and consequently, it is an easy plant to divide. Cut the plant back in the fall, and each year the root systems will grow larger and the plant become taller and bushier. Our winters don’t faze lovage, and it can be safely described as a hardy perennial and one of the first to peek above ground in spring. It is not an herb suitable for growing indoors.

Lovage came from the Mediterranean area and was taken by the Romans on their travels to other parts of Europe. It was popular in Britain, where it was grown in the gardens of the Benedictine monks. Aside from cooking the leaves and stems as a vegetable, some of the other early uses were as a bath herb for cleansing and deodorizing the skin, and at inns the leaves were laid in shoes to revive the weary traveler and added to refreshing cordials for flavor. But even though the original medicinal, cosmetic and culinary lists were long, this herb has been little used since the 19th century. Still, it need not be neglected, and for me it has become like an old friend that I reminisce with every summer.

Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.

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