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Lovage Plant Tips: Lovely Little Leaves

The lovage plant was once revered by the great civilizations of Europe, with intrepid explorers ensuring specimens were exported to their new kitchen gardens in foreign climes. So why in modern times have we fallen out of love with lovage? 

Lovage is a relatively unknown herb which is unfortunate given that all parts of the plant are edible and tasty too! The vigorous growth of just one plant will keep a kitchen supplied throughout the season.  Lovage has a sweet celery flavor with a hint of citrus, parsley, and aniseed.  Leaves can be used in soups, stews, and salads; their roots can be eaten as a vegetable and stems can be candied like angelica.  Seeds are also delicious and can be used fresh or dried in dishes requiring a gentle heat infusion.

The ancient Greeks chewed lovage seeds to aid with digestion and throughout Europe the plant was reputed to have aphrodisiac properties, perhaps influencing the ‘love’ part of its common name lovage.  The deodorizing and antiseptic properties of lovage leaves were used to revive sore feet and disguise unpleasant smells in the shoes of weary travelers.

On a more positive note, lovage is slowly making a comeback and like most foodie fashion trends, it is often a key ingredient in posh restaurant dishes, but you don’t have to splurge the cash to taste this herby delight.  Lovage is extremely easy to grow in your own garden, so why not give it a try!

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Quick Care Guide

Lovage plant
The lovage plant is a sturdy and vigorous grower. Source: vigilant20
Common NameLovage, love parsley, sea parsley, smellage, Maggi plant
Scientific NameLevisticum officinale
FamilyApiaceae
Height & Spread6.5 feet tall (2m) and 3ft (1m) wide
LightFull sun to partial shade
SoilFertile, well-drained sandy loam
WaterKeep soil moist but not wet
Pests & DiseasesLeaf miners, early/late blight

All About Lovage

Lovage stem
Leaves are opposite one another on the plant. Source: zenryaku

Levisticum officinale is the botanical name for the lovage plant, a member of the Apiaceae family that includes carrot, fennel, parsley, and celery. Common names include lovage, love parsley, sea parsley, smellage, and maggi plant. Originating in the Mediterranean region of southern Europe and southwestern Asia, lovage is now widespread in temperate regions of the globe including parts of North America, Northern Europe including Scandinavian countries, and Australia.

Lovage is a clump-forming hardy perennial, growing to a majestic 6.5 feet tall (2m) and 3ft (1m) wide once established. It develops a dense rosette of basal leaf growth extending to around 2ft (60cms) in height.  Leaves are mid to dark green, glossy, pinnate with deeply toothed margins.  They are similar in appearance to the leaves of celery and flat-leafed parsley.

Thick, strong, hollow flowering stalks appear in late spring to early summer growing to a height of 3-5ft (36–72cms) long. Shorter, sparse leaves grow along the flower stalks.  Lovage flowers are produced at the end of the long stalks in clusters of tiny white to greenish-yellow flowers, forming globose umbels.  Seeds are light to golden brown, ribbed, and around half an inch (1cm) long. 

As a herbaceous hardy perennial, lovage dies back completely in winter and re-emerges in early spring.  Its vigorous growth rate means you will be harvesting leaves in a matter of weeks from the first sight of the first shoots.  Young leaves have the sweetest flavor and the more you harvest the more leaves are produced.  Once plants begin to flower, leaves become bitter and unpalatable.

The leaves, stems, roots, and seeds of the lovage plants are all edible. Lovage stems and leaves have a celery-like flavor, but much sweeter, intense with a citrus tang.  They are a good accompaniment to potato, pasta, and egg dishes. Lovage roots are treated as a root vegetable and taste like celery or parsley root. They can be mashed, boiled, roasted, or added to soups and stews.  Lovage seeds are sometimes called celery seeds and have a celery flavor with a hint of aniseed.  Use the seeds as a spice in dishes that require fennel or a bit of mild heat.

Lovage self-seeds freely, but don’t worry if you don’t want giant lovage plants erupting like Triffids throughout your garden.  Seedlings are easily identified and removed, or simply remove the seed heads before they ripen.

Like other members of the carrot family, lovage flowers attract beneficial insects into the garden and the umbrella-shaped umbels make perfect landing platforms.

Planting Lovage

If you are new to growing, then starting off lovage from storebought transplants is a good option.   If not, then it’s straightforward to grow from seed or a root division. 

Sow seeds into modules or pots, 5-6 weeks before the last frost date and they will be ready for planting outside after all risk of frost has passed.  Space plants 2ft (60cms) apart.  Remember, you don’t need to sow many seeds as lovage plants are huge and one plant will provide more than enough leaves for a single household in a growing season. 

Seeds can be sown directly into their final growing location in late spring or early fall and seedlings thinned to approximately 2ft (60cms) between plants. Spacing is the same for transplants.

Mature plants can be divided in early spring or fall and divisions planted into their new growing locations straight away or potted up into large containers.

Choose a bright, sheltered location to grow lovage, with moist, free-draining fertile soil.  Soil can be prepared with well-rotted manure a few weeks prior to planting out if needed.

Lovage grows well in containers when the conditions are right.  Provide lots of rich, moist, well-draining compost, and ensure your container is large and deep enough to accommodate a large plant with a long taproot and heavy enough so that it won’t blow over.  Locate your container-grown plants in full sun or part shade in a sheltered spot in the garden.

Care

Lovage flower buds
Lovage flowers start as tiny green buds. Source: candyhargett

Growing lovage is easy.  Give plants the right conditions to grow and they will look after themselves.

Sun and Temperature

Lovage is a cool, temperate climate plant that prefers full sun with a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight per day.  It will also grow happily in warmer climates if shaded from the midday sun.  As cold-hardy perennial plants, lovage grows well in USDA zones 3 to 9, surviving freezing winter temperatures with little to no protection.

Water and Humidity

Soil should be consistently moist but not wet. Drip hoses are ideal to maintain moisture levels, especially during dry periods as lovage is not drought tolerant.  Alternatively, water your plants in the morning or late evening when the top few inches of soil feel dry to touch.  Use watering cans or hoses directed at the ground.  Watering is not necessary over winter when plants are dormant.

Soil

Grow lovage in rich, moist, well-draining soil.  Sandy loam is ideal.  Prepare beds with lots of rich organic matter to provide nutrients for the new growing season.  Lovage likes a slightly acidic soil pH of 6.5.

Fertilizing

Lovage grows best in rich soil with lots of added organic matter.  Dig in well-rotted manure before planting and top dress established plants in spring with manure or good quality compost to provide extra nutrients.  If plants look a little lackluster, give them a balanced liquid feed in spring and again in mid-summer after a hard prune to encourage new growth.

Pruning

The more you harvest lovage leaves the more it will produce, but at some point, the plant will want to flower.  Cut back all the flowering stems once you have collected the seeds and the second flush of new leaves will appear in a few weeks.  Leaves die back in fall so to keep the plant looking tidy, cut back all stems to ground level in winter.

Propagation

Lovage can be propagated by seed or division.  Sow fresh seed under cover in spring, 5 to 6 weeks before the last frost date.  Sow into cell trays filled with general compost and lightly cover with a sprinkling of compost or vermiculite.  Germination can be erratic taking up to 20 days.  Gentle bottom heat with a temperature of 60ºF (15ºC) should help speed things along.

Seeds can be sown directly into prepared beds in spring after all risk of frost or early fall. Thin seedlings to 60cm apart.

Established plants can be divided in the fall or early spring. To divide, carefully dig up the entire plant and split it into the desired number of divisions using a spade, garden fork, or sharp knife. 

Harvesting and Storing

An abundance of lovage
A healthy lovage plant will supply an abundance of leaves. Source: John and Anni

Follow the tips below to make the best use of your lovage harvest and make them last longer.

Harvesting

Flowering causes the leaves to become bitter, so harvest as many leaves as possible before the first flowering stalks emerge.  Give plants a good prune to encourage fresh growth.  Remove seed heads when the seeds begin to turn golden brown.  Harvest roots when plants are being divided, or if you grow lots of lovage plants, harvest roots as needed from established plants.

Storing

Leaves are best used fresh.  For longer shelf life, place stems in a glass of water somewhere cool or wrap in damp kitchen paper and store in the refrigerator until needed.  Roots are also best used fresh and will store well in a cool cupboard for up to a week. Hang seed heads somewhere warm and ventilated to dry completely.  A paper bag placed over the seeds helps to catch any that fall.  Dried seeds can be stored in an airtight container for a year.

Troubleshooting

Lovage flowers
The mature flowers remain greenish-yellow in color. Source: vigilant20

Like most plants, if you provide the optimum conditions your growing lovage will thrive.  Lovage is more forgiving than most plants and practically looks after itself, although there are one or two issues you might want to look out for.

Growing Problems

Lovage is pretty much trouble-free and an enjoyable plant to grow in the garden.  A couple of things to bear in mind are that lovage likes its soil to be kept on the moist side, so keep your plants hydrated. Also, the vigorous growth and height of lovage can make it susceptible to blowing over.  If this happens, use stakes to provide additional support and move plants to a more sheltered location.

Pests

Leaf miners are the main insect to attack lovage by boring through leaf membranes leaving unsightly road maps across the surface.  Spray leaves with an organic insecticide such as neem oil at first sight of infestation.  Wash all leaves before consumption.

Diseases

Lovage tends to be disease-free, but it can be affected by early or late blight causing leaves to turn yellow and die.  Preventative action can be taken early in the season by applying Trichoderma harzianum to the planting site.  Good garden hygiene is essential to avoid blight as well as removing infected foliage and relocating plants to more appropriate growing conditions.  Adequate air circulation is essential and crop rotation every few years will reduce the likelihood of blight recurring.  Late blight can be treated with organic fungicidal sprays such as sulfur, copper, neem oil, and potassium bicarbonate.

Frequently Asked Questions

Lovage leaves
As they’re related to celery, lovage leaves are similar in shape. Source: h-bomb

Q: What does lovage taste like?

A: Lovage tastes like celery and parsley, but with a more intense sweet flavor and a hint of citrus and aniseed.

Q: What is lovage used for?

A:  Use lovage leaves in the same way you would use celery or parsley in salads, stews, and casseroles.  The roots are also edible and should be treated as a root vegetable, roasted, mashed, or boiled.  Seeds have a warm celery-like flavor and can be used as a spice.

Q: Does lovage like sun or shade?

A:  Grow lovage in full sun where possible. It can also tolerate partial shade, especially beneficial if growing lovage in warmer climates.


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