My friend Daniel has a garden that intimidates the hell out of me. Every patch of land blooms with color, some of it spiky, some of it subtle. Towering tree-like plants from South Africa bloom next to a low shrub from Argentina. He has traveled the world and brought back seeds from nearly every country. In his Seward Park backyard, he has re-created the world, as he has seen it, in lush density. Every time I visited, he gave me a tour of the new plants, brushing up against the old ones as we walked — fuschia rhododendrons; crayon-orange dahlias; fireworks spread out along the ground as pink daisies. As we touched each plant, he trilled off the long Latin name of each one, relishing the hard consonants of the dead language in his mouth.

Mostly, I just nodded and smiled. And smelled the flowers that looked appealing to me.

Really, I know so little about the plants around me that it’s embarrassing.

The summer after I graduated college, I couldn’t find work. Do you remember that time, 1990, all the bright young things suddenly brought down to earth by the dearth of jobs and the disappearance of alluring careers? And those were the business majors. Me? Double major in English literature and creative writing. Useless, in other words. Bound to get me work.

When I wasn’t crafting terrible stories and sending them to The New Yorker, I looked for something I could do that would help me leave my room. In desperation — and some Thoreau-like wish to return to nature — I applied for a job at a nursery in my town. Unfortunately, the morning of the interview, I lost my contact lens down the drain of the bathroom sink. This left me like Cyclops, one eye working, and frantic. The supervisor led me down rows of potted plants under a white tent, and asked me to name each one. Squinting, I took guesses, based on the names of plants I had liked for their sounds. I had no clue.

I ended up working at a bookstore in a mall, instead. I don’t really think about that year much, now.

Yesterday, the sun shone, and the sky seemed to suggest the light would last for hours. We put Bean’s bouncer underneath the cherry tree and let her dance up and down in her bare feet. Danny dragged out the push mower and went back and forth over the green. I found a hoe in the garden shed, then heaved it to my shoulder and let it fall to the ground. One raised bed, weeded. That’s all I wanted for the afternoon.

Hands in the dirt, I pushed apart the weeds and pulled them up. Potato bugs emerged and then waved their spindly grey legs in the air, then arighted themselves again. My skin grew faintly pink from the sun. Music played from an open window next to the lilac tree, suffused with light when I stood in the right spot. Little Bean kept bouncing.

For a moment, everything felt as drawn in black lines as the dirt under my fingernails.

Within a few moments, I gave up the goal. I just wanted to keep working. Clods of earth, long tendrils of frilly grass gone from the patch, rocks, and old plant tags buried in the black dirt — they grew in the pile next to the wooden borders. When I stopped to smear sunscreen on my arms with my dirty hands, I saw that the bed was nearly cleared.

After a kiss on Bean’s head, and a ridiculous conversation with Danny, I put small leaves of lettuce, like tentacles waving, into the dirt. Black Tuscan kale. Magenta chard. Curls of arugula. Cilantro seeds.

I have no idea if they will live. There’s a hard wind blowing tonight. All the plant starts could be trampled by fat raindrops by the morning. And even if they survive, I really don’t know what I’m doing.

I’m just excited that I planted them.

And later in the afternoon, Shannon came by to show us the garden, each peony bush and kiwi vine something she had planted with her hands in the years she lived here. Purple species rhododendrons like paper-maiche dresses, alpine strawberry plants dotted along the side yard among the apple trees, red currant bushes with tiny green berries that will ripen into red within a few weeks. (And we might be able to eat them, if the deer don’t get them, or the territorial raccoons.)

“What’s this?” I pointed to the green leaves vaguely shaped like the Canadian maple leaves. Danny and I had been trying to figure it out. I was stuck at celery.
“Lovage,” she said, smiling and proud.

I’ve never used it. Never eaten it before. All I could think — and my head kept repeating it — was “Lettice and Lovage,” the name of a feisty funny British play that starred the fiercest actress alive, Maggie Smith. (Seriously, if you have never seen one of her movies, rectify that mistake.) Once again, I knew the literature, instead of the thing itself.

But it’s in our garden now. Soon we’ll snip some leaves and figure out what to do with it.

Do you have any ideas?

I hope you have the chance to put your hands in the dirt soon, too.


47 comments on “lovage

  1. Julie

    I put my hands in the dirt today too. Basil, lettuces, parsley, cilantro, tomatoes… will wait for the inevitable final dumping of snow before putting in the chard and peas.

    I’m not too familiar with lovage, but I know it goes well with seafood, and I had a slaw once that was deliciously spiked with it.

  2. Nina

    You’ll love you some lovage after you read this website: http://www.herbs2000.com/herbs/herbs_lovage.htm

    I’m sure that The Herbfarm cookbook has some lovely lovage recipes, too.

    Me, my garden grows with sorrel, bay laurel, rosemary, thyme, oregano, chives, parsley and lots of garlic and sage… but I got me no lovage now. Let us know what you come up with!

  3. Jen

    A SF Bay Area farmer told me last week that the original Bloody Mary recipe was meant to be sipped through a lovage straw. Apparently, it has since been replaced by the much more common stalk of celery. Check it out… the lovage stalks are hollow – making perfect straws.

  4. Mindy

    this post reminded me of our first year in our home. we had no idea what anything was either. now we love gardening. we still don't know much, but we learn more every year. i planted chard yesterday too. we've already got lettuce & peas coming up. happy gardening!

  5. Mrs. S

    I am planting lovage this year too! It tastes a bit like celery, but with a tang.

    We planted cabbage, kale, chard, parsley, basil, cilantro, thyme, winter squash, peas, onions and lots and lots of garlic. That’s only the first half of the garden. Tomatoes, zucchini and peppers to come!

  6. Kristina

    I’d heard of sipping a Bloody Mary with lovage, too.

    Also, I have a pickled beet recipe I’m dying to try (from the Joy of Cooking canning book) that calls for lovage. I didn’t have any last year, so I had to use dill. Not bad, but not lovage. Enjoy!

  7. Scintilla @ Bell'Avventura

    Oh, yes! I wax poetic too when talking about my garden…
    I have what is probably lovage but bought it thinking it was celery. The name was in German.
    I’ll take a look at that website !

  8. Ya Chun

    lovage has a strong and sometimes bitter celery-like flavor. One leaf goes a loong long way. I have used it in soups, in salads like egg/tuna, and one leaflet in various dishes/stirfries.

    For me, it grows way more than I can use it. I end up cutting it down a few times. But it’s gorgeous.

  9. jenn

    I went to an herb seminar last year and they spoke of using lovage for bloody mary straws as well as in recipes where you would ordinarily use celery. As I understand it, it is a perennial, which is great because then you don’t have to worry about planting it every year.

    Also (getting up on the Master Gardener soapbox now), in gardening, it is ‘soil’, not ‘dirt’. Dirt is what we sweep up off of our floors. Soil is matter rich in nutrients and organisms that help our plants grow and produce food.

    Best o luck with your garden! 🙂

  10. brenlm

    I spike cream cheese with little bits of lovage, tiny diced green onion, water chestnut, and then spread on small-bite tea sandwiches, pared with thinly sliced meats, cheeses, tomato, cuke, and a dollup of some sort of delicious tangy chutney on the side. It’s a lovely, refreshingly slow and delicious summer meal, outside on the back porch.

  11. brenlm

    I spike cream cheese with tender lovage leaves, tiny diced green onion, water chestnut, and then spread on small-bite tea sandwiches or seed bread, pared with thinly sliced meats or cheese, smoked salmon, homemade sweet pickles, juicy tomato, cuke, and maybe a dollup of some sort of delicious tangy chutney on the side.

    It’s a lovely, refreshingly slow and delicious summer meal, outside on the back porch. Often accompanied by fresh fruit salad, or buttery hunks of corn on the cob.

    Enjoy your garden! A little dirt under the fingernails is good for the soul — keeps us all grounded and humble.

  12. SusanLC

    You have rekindled my interest in herbs. Our city’s Herb Society is having its annual herb sale this Saturday. I am looking forward to that event.

    I thought you would be interested in some thoughts regarding Lovage from my well loved book, “Herbs for Use and for Delight” (A Dover publication):

    *It was used as a celery substitute by our forefathers since it was easily grown, favoring moist heavy soil and shade.
    *Its aromatic seed head attracts birds, especially goldfinches.
    * It grew in the medicinal herb garden of the famous Abbey of St. Gall, back in the 8th century.
    * A lovage leaf will alleviate the pain from a bee-sting if crushed and rubbed on.

    I grew lovage in my garden 20 years ago. I remember not being very fond of it. I was pregnant and the stong odor made me nauseous. It also became quite invasive.

  13. shana70

    it’s like a cross between celery and parsley – great in soups, salads it adds a really nice light vegetal (is that even a word?) taste to things – I mix it into tomato based garden veggie soups and along with parsley in tabbouleh salads (I use quinoa in place of the bulgar). It really perks up the flavour in things that need something green and fresh tasting.

  14. Giovanna

    Lovage is great–I like making a bean salad with Corona beans, chopped lovage, garlic, good olive oil and salt.

    But my favorite thing is in Deborah Madison’s book, Local Flavors–‘Salt Potatoes with Butter and Herbs’. You boil the potatoes in water with a shocking amount of salt, drain, toss with another ungodly amount of butter and mixed herbs–I’ve done it often with only lovage, and it’s wonderful.

    I think she also has a frittata recipe in her big book that has lovage? Haven’t tried it yet…

    Bloody Mary’s through a lovage straw is an awfully good idea.

  15. Amanda on Maui

    It sounds like everyone is getting into the spirit of spring. I just planted some herbs in pots, a raised bed system is in the plans, and we were eyeing what to do with the poor abandoned flower bed in front of our new home. Even though I am a renter, I intend to stay here a while and care for the gardening at this home.

    I am putting down roots.

  16. Mollie

    This is from wikipedia: Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is a plant, the leaves and seeds or fruit of which are used to flavor food, especially in South European cuisine. It is a tall (3 to 9 ft) perennial that vaguely resembles its cousin celery in appearance and in flavor. Lovage also sometimes gets referred to as smallage, but this is more properly used for celery. Looks like you weren’t too far off with the celery guess!

  17. umami girl

    I LOVE this post. I want to comment on every third line but am going to rein it in and just second the referral to The Herbfarm Cookbook for lovage. There’s a halibut recipe in there that looks amazing.

  18. Katha

    Your post on lovage conjured up memories for me – we had it in our garden when I grew up.
    Here in Germany, it is a bit of an old-fashioned herb, not used that much anymore. (And for the commenter who bought it with a German name, that is “Liebstöckel”)
    If you have a patch of it in your garden, it will probably grow like crazy and you will have to use lots of it just so it does not overtake your whole yard ;^)

    We use lovage in clear soups – like chicken broth, for example. In Germany, it is also called the “Maggi-Kraut”, for its taste resembles a commercial liquid seasoning a bit like soy sauce.

    I love lovage for a sauce to accompany veal schnitzel – just a bit of stock, cream, pepper, salt and “lotsa lovage” put in the butter you fried the meat in. My parents serve pasta and steamed apples with honey to accompany that. A treat!

    As a child, I requested leaves of lovage on my sandwiches for school. Nothing but butter spread on dark German bread and lovage.

    Hope I have given you some ideas.

  19. Nancy in NY

    Lovage is a beautiful, pale green, maintenance-free herb growing quite tall and it never tips over or needs to be supported.

    I like it used to flavor grain, bean or rice salads. But as Ya Chun says, a little goes a long way.

    It’s also lovely made into a pureed soup with your favorite vegetable stock, a little wine and onions, potatoes and lemon basil. Again, just a little, maybe a third of a cup, finely chopped will probably be enough. You might want to try adding it to your favorite celery soup for a little something extra.

  20. toots11

    I have a huge clump of it growing in my patio, so always have more than I need. I use the stalks and leaves in any stews and stocks i’d put celery in. I also use the leaves, chopped, in things like chicken salad, egg salad.
    The stems are great for Ceasars (we dont drink Bloody Marys up here in Canada, we drink Ceasars, made with Clamato juice!).
    I cut off the flower stems before they flower to encourage the growth of leafy stems. I find it gets a bit straggly about mid-summer if I don’t

  21. Rebecca

    this is not related particularly to this post, but I just wanted to say your blog is amazing!! Thank you for all the resources, stories, and recipes you have!

  22. GFE--gluten free easily

    I’d plant that just for the name. It sounds so cool. Lettuce and lovage like you said. But, I have no clue about it. Hope all your stuff grows! You are setting a good example for Little Bean! 🙂


  23. Jo

    Gardening is one of the big loves of my life! Nothing makes me feel more connected or accomplished and gives me pure unadulterated joy.

  24. Janel

    Just the other weekend, I bought some tomato plants and other flowers to plant in what I affectionately call our “back jungle”.

    I’m going to approach a neighbor about helping me to clear the big things and then try my hand at planting.

    It’s both exhilarating and daunting. Of course, it could fail miserably, but what is life if we don’t try anything new?


  25. Brj


    This post is so lovely.

    Recently I came to the realization that not everyone in the world loves gardening as much as those in the Northwest do. I’m in Oregon, just south of Portland and do adore my garden time; prepping the bed took weeks, Saturday is planting time! I wish your little baby planties luck!

    I’m so looking forward to coming to see you in June at the Gluten Intolerance Group conference. After reading your blog for over a year now, it will be a pleasure to see you in person. 🙂

    Can’t wait!


  26. Teresa

    I hate to admit this but I ripped out my lovage last spring. I planted it a few years back in one of my herb beds and it just started taking over the place. Just touching it left me with its intense smell for hours afterward. But after reading some of the comments listed on your post, I may retry planting it in a spot that won’t crowd out my other wonderful herbs and that minimizes any inadvertent contact. I live dangerously close to Nichols Nursery near Albany, Oregon and they carry some absolutely amazing hard to find herbs and edible plants. — greenie

  27. Teresa

    I hate to admit this but I ripped out my lovage last spring. I planted it a few years back in one of my herb beds and it just started taking over the place. Just touching it left me with its intense smell for hours afterward. But after reading some of the comments listed on your post, I may retry planting it in a spot that won’t crowd out my other wonderful herbs and that minimizes any inadvertent contact. I live dangerously close to Nichols Nursery near Albany, Oregon and they carry some absolutely amazing hard to find herbs and edible plants.

  28. Lou

    Hi, I’ve been following your blog for more than a year now. Thank you for the wonderful writing and the recipes! I’m prompted to write because I’m a first-time gardener too. And for me these joys are new and thrilling. Will the basil thrive (I planted tons of seeds)? Will the tomato plants bear the
    hoped-for perfection?

    One can only hope. But oh, what a journey.

  29. EB of SpiceDish

    I’ve never had lovage (not that I remember anyway) can’t wait to hear what people come up to do with it.

  30. Hayley

    Gluten free pasta with sauteed oyster mushrooms in brown butter with a big ol’ handful of lovage tossed in. Yum-o!

  31. Elsbeth

    In Holland lovage is one of the main flavourings of vegetable soups. Bags of pre-cut soup vegetables always contain lovage and parsley. We call it Maggiplant, because the taste is a bit like the dark sauce produced by Maggi brand.
    I love it esp. a tomato-vegetable soup with carrot, celery, leeks and red lentils. Enjoy it!

  32. tired of smiling

    It took me 3 years of heroic efforts to rid my garden of the horrid lovage “tree” that we inherited when we moved into the house. Beware – ahem – it’s not just easy to grow, it’s hard to kill, and it grows taller than a person, takes up a huge amount of garden space when full-grown and, well, some people just can’t stand the taste of it. I would advise to plant it in a place where it is unlikely to spread and take over, ie. a planter with boundaries, and you might want to taste it and figure out how you will use it before you comit. You can always get some from a neighbour who is attempting to tame their patch.

  33. Rachael

    I love lovage, chives, and sorrel for being the first green things I can eat after a long Minnesota winter. Lovage ends up in everything I cook in late April and early May, and then looks nice next to my rugosa rose until the next year. The sorrel get’s eaten every day from April till the first freeze, I have ten of them around the yard and may put in more. I find lovage good wherever cilantro goes, especially in Thai or Indian food. Not that it’s traditional mind, it just tastes good with similar things. And it’s a great stump-the-foodie ingredient.

  34. Anonymous

    I often shred some lovage leaves into my salads.

    I had lovage for years at my old hosue, and missed it so planted another last fall. I just noticed it’s up and looking lovely, which pleased me. I’ve never had a spreading problem, but I do tend to chop off the head before the flowers really get going, and so avoid seed production. I also seem to recall that it tends to fizzle out in the real heat of summer, but maybe I’m remembering wrong, it has been 5 or 6 years since I moved.

  35. Jared

    My partner and I are two American city boys, and when we first moved to rural New Zealand, we had noooo idea what we were doing. Veggie garden? Huh? 20 acres and an olive grove? Double-huh!

    But now we’re both keen gardeners and we have learned more about how to care for an olive tree (well, 500 trees, really) and make good olive oil than I ever thought possible. Go, Shauna, go!

  36. Anonymous

    Chocolate! I have a huge lovage plant here in Chicago. The leaves are wonderful mixed with a little sugar or stevia and maybe some chocolate as a topping for ice cream, strawberries, a flourless chocolate cake, etc. I’ve never considered using it for savories, likes soups, etc. The plant itself is indestructible. I’ve had it for years, and it’s withstood every hardship.

  37. Anonymous

    Lovage is great in soups and stews! It’s the main ingredient in a product we have always used in our family called Maggi. The Euro soy sauce!

  38. Anonymous

    I just came across Lovage this weekend while out herb shopping with my Mom on Mother’s Day and I had to snatch some up. I haven’t had a chance to use any but I’m a huge fan of celery flavor without the work (and sometimes crunch) of celery. I think I’ll try it in a light quinoa/veggie/herb cold salad.

  39. Ana

    Oooooh lovage! I love it, it’s in my garden and spreads like a weed if you’re not careful. Make the most of it while it’s here, it dies back in autumn.

    I use it raw in salad, it makes a great replacement for coriander in lots of recipes and is an absolute must in soups, especially tomato soup – just divine.

    Try a tomato salad with a simple olive oil and vinegar dressing with plenty of salt and pepper, and add plenty of lovage. If possible, leave it for an hour or so before serving for all the flavours to really come out. Perfect!

    PS my husband says that a leaf crushed at the bottom of a tumbler of malt whisky is marvellous.

  40. Anonymous

    My German friend uses Lovage all the time. She brought her plant to the states from Germany years ago.
    Lovage has a “smoky/celery flavor”, according to my family.
    Uses? Chopped up and added to:
    Potato salad (NOT the kind w/ mayo)
    Chili topping
    Anything you would add a handful of herbs to.

  41. baylass

    I started reading your blog. I found your book first on Chapters and ordered it. Then I went to add you on Twitter; now I’m on your blog.
    I went to a chiropractor and they did this testing; results came back that…..well…..basically I shouldn’t eat anything but possibly fight the squirrels in the feeder for the nuts and sunflower seeds. LOL
    I left there discouraged because there wasn’t any direction or diet plan to follow, just ‘don’t eat this stuff listed for a month.’ I could eat steamed spinach, but couldn’t eat spinach. There were other examples but I just can’t think of them right now.
    One thing it said was stay away from Gluten. I love PASTA!! How could she do this to me!!
    I went on Chapters and found your book and ordered it.
    I’m enjoying your blog and there’s alot to learn and read up on.
    I’ve added you to my blog “changes” but I am in the process of doing a new blog that I hope I can also add you to. Advertising is a great thing!!

    Thank you for all the info. I will truly enjoy reading the stories you have posted.


  42. Susan

    I’ve been eating lovage in salad these last two weeks. My kids don’t like it, though, because the flavor is very strong and the smell gives my husband a headache. Maybe it’s called lovage because you really have to love it to use it.

    Your approach to gardening is a bit like mine. Nod and smile when people tell you all about these wonderful plants. Then hope you can have a garden as great. You may want to check out my post on “Darwinian Gardening” at http://www.redtaildesigns.com/2009/05/14/will-weed-for-food/

  43. Anonymous

    I first encountered lovage in Lithuania, where it is not part of the national cuisine, but brought in from Georgia or somewhere – chopped in with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions and mixed with a sour cream dressing. I thought it was awesome. I planted a start in a bed on the north side of the house – it grows well but controlled – not invasive from this location at all. I've used it in soups and salads, and love the ideas I've gotten here, especially the Bloody Mary one.

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