Lovage, actually

Lovage is the rather lovely name given to two plants, both in the carrot family but otherwise unrelated, that share a similar flavour: sort of earthy, yeasty and slightly celeryish. If you’ve tried Maggi sauce you’ll recognise it immediately, and in parts of Europe lovage has come to be known as the Maggi plant, although in fact there is no lovage in the recipe for the sauce.

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The first lovage plant is a monster called Levisticum officinale. It’s a tricky plant to make best use of, as in a favourable spot it grows into an 8ft tall triffid, whereas all it takes is a tiny fragment of leaf to flavour a dish. Fortunately, like many other carrot relatives, the spring shoots are much more mildly flavoured than the mature leaves and my main use of lovage is now in the spring. By shoots I mean the leaf spears just as they are coming out of the ground, still rolled up and pale green. Fortunately on lovage these are still pretty substantial. Even once the foliage becomes more grown up you can still often find new shoots coming up at the base of the plant.

Lovage shoots have lots of uses. They can be cooked like other shoots such as asparagus, fried in a little olive oil or butter. They are great in tempura and they also stir fry well. Lovage and tomato seems to be a particularly nice combination, so I also use them in pasta sauces. Their strong flavour is perfect for blending into leaf sauce, which I’ll post a recipe for soon.

Later in the season, when lovage generally gets rather overbearing, you can find another use for it as a green manure plant, cutting down the foliage for the compost heap to feed your annual crops later on. I take this dual-use approach with quite a lot of my forest garden plants now, making use of the crops themselves as green manures rather than taking up space with dedicated green manure crops such as comfrey.

The second lovage is a much smaller, better-behaved plant called Scots lovage (Ligusticum scoticum). It grows wild on the beaches up here and I have fond memories of adding it, freshly picked, to salads and pasta sauces on canoeing trips on the Sutherland coast. If you can’t be bothered going down to the beach every time you want a little bit, it grows modestly and unfussily in the forest garden, tolerating a reasonable level of shade (although not a plant for deep shade). It is milder and sweeter than big lovage too, so much so that the early leaves are great chopped into spring salads. It shares lovage’s affinity with tomato and I’m very fond of it with tomatoes and beans. Like parsley, it is best added close to the end of cooking.

Scots lovage

Note: In  postscript to this post, there seems to be a lot of variability in Scots lovage. One plant I have grows as described above, about 300mm in diameter; a second one from the same supplier (Poyntzfield Herbs) grew to over a metre. I got rid of it, but now I rather regret now finding out what the spring shoots were like.

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3 thoughts on “Lovage, actually

  1. I grew and used big lovage in Wales for years but it is very large and very strong in flavour. Where can I find Scots lovage to grow now I live in Aberdeenshire…I would love to grow it …makes excellent carrot and lovage soup…….

  2. If you can wait until winter when I can lift and divide my plants, I could give you some. Alternatively, I got mine from Poyntzfield Herbs (www.poyntzfieldherbs.co.uk/) up in the Black Isle, who do mail order. In Aberdeenshire, you might be able to get some from Erica Hollis at Rowancott Herbs (www.rowancottherbs.co.uk) and I’d also recommend Plants with Purpose (www.plantswithpurpose.co.uk). If you just want a leaf to try, try a walk along the shore!

  3. Standard lovage (also called “Maggi plant” here in Germany, because it tastes like Maggi brand soup stock and can replace it when cooking vegetable stew) stays as small as cutting celery or largish parsley if you plant it in a small pot. I’ve got several many-years-old plants in a meter-long balcony planter (the kind you hang off the railing), which is only about 15 cm wide. There actually is more living root material than soil in the planter by now, with much of the roots exposed to the air, but that doesn’t seem to bother the lovage. I give it a bit of nitrogen fertilizer in its water a few times per year (especially in the spring while it sprouts and in the summer, after it starts yellowing the first time) and that seems to be sufficient. It’s even so frost-hardy that the planter can stay outside through winter, if I put it in a nook out of the wind and put a thick layer of dry leaves and a blanket on top. (We only occasionally get nighttime freezes below -10°C though.)
    Treated like this, the plants grow a dense thicket of leaves but never bloom. Though I could partition the root if I wanted to propagate it.

    Perhaps I have some sort of dwarf mutation lovage, though. Because the few times I tried to plant it out in the ground, it actually did worse than in the small pot. Forget man-high plants – they barely even produce any leaves at all, and those few at most a foot high. I don’t know if it’s because my native sand soil is that poor (though the top few inches are humous and good enough for flowers), or because the area is too shady (though the planter also stands in the half shade and the plant is supposed to tolerate shade), or if it’s the particular variety of lovage I have. (We’ve had it so long that nobody remembers where we got it from.)

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