GARDENING AND BIRDS
There’s a giant herb in my garden. It comes up every year with lush, green, celery-like leaves and hollow stems, thrusting its way up next to the roses. By this time of the year it’s a towering 2m high. Each stem is crowned with masses of small yellow flowers that swarm with pollinators.
It is lovage (Levisticum officniale), which looks like a cross between parsley and celery with a bit of Jack and the beanstalk thrown in. It is part of the celery family (Apiaceae) but a lot easier to grow than celery, which can be temperamental. Every part is edible and this herb, which is native to Europe and West Asia, has been long cultivated for its edible and medicinal properties.
We are lucky in Tasmania as lovage develops its best flavour in cool climates. And that flavour is strong, much like pungent celery with a touch of aniseed. Not everyone likes it. I’ve seen garden visitors who taste its fresh green leaves screw up their faces. Try the young leaves and tender stems, which are milder in flavour, to garnish salads. It can be added to cooked dishes to give a celery flavour and the fleshy carrot-like roots used as a vegie. Even the plentiful seeds can be harvested to grind as a spice to add to sweet and savoury dishes. I haven’t tried this but the young stems can be candied, too.
Sow seed in spring or early summer. To get fresh new growth, cut back some mature stems later in summer. Lovage can be propagated in the middle of the year when it’s died down for winter. Simply dig it up, divide the root with a sharp spade, replant half and relocate the other. Once growing, leave it in the soil to reshoot in spring. It appreciates fertile soil. Dig in compost or aged manure before planting and allow at least 60cm between it and its neighbours so it has room to grow. Position it so it doesn’t overshadow sun lovers and is protected from wind. At 1.5m-2m high it is one for the back of the herb garden. It does best in full sun but is happy with part sun. Lovage produces flat heads of small yellow flowers. It has few pest or disease problems but watch for snails and slugs.
Lovage is valued by herbalists as a natural antibiotic. It is used for throat gargles and for congestion and recommended to aid digestion. It is used to remove odours. If your hands smell — for example after handling strongly scented foods such as fish or onion — rub them with lovage tea made by steeping the leaves in boiling water for seven minutes.
It is also distilled for its essential oil and is an ingredient in perfumes. An extract from the root is used in perfumes or soaps. My plant could have a very busy career indeed but for now, I am happy to have it growing for the acid-yellow colour of its flowers and to watch the happy pollinators at work.