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Lovage: an all-purpose pollinator plant

Speaking of slaughtered pigs, my Appalachian grandfather used to say you can harvest everything but the squeak — a culinary tidbit that was unsettling to my preschool self. It turns out that the plant version of the versatile pig is lovage, Levisticum officinale. Every single part of the plant is good for something, from the flowers to the roots and everything in between. In the end, nothing is left, not even a squeak. And unlike a harvested pig, lovage will re-sprout the following spring. For beekeepers, lovage is extra special because honey bees love the thick and gooey nectar.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 160 No 8, August 2020, pp. 853-856.

Imported from Europe

Like many of the medicinal plants, lovage arrived from Europe and, according to historic American recipes, the herb reached home gardens early in the colonial period. Prior to that time, it was fashionable throughout Europe, particularly in England and Germany. Once it reached North America, the herb became wildly popular with the Shakers who used the plant in many creative ways. Favored as a folk remedy and cooking herb throughout the 1800s, lovage began to fade in the twentieth century (1900s). Today, most people never see it outside of a seed catalog.

Lovage is native to the Mediterranean region. A member of the parsley family (Apiaceae), it is close kin to celery, anise, parsnip, carrot, dill, parsley, and caraway. All the members of this family are used in similar ways and have many common characteristics.

Honey bees are fond of lovage flowers, often covering the blooms. All photos by Rusty Burlew
Honey bees are fond of lovage flowers, often covering the blooms. All photos by Rusty Burlew

Not a Dainty Plant

Like the aforementioned pig, a lovage plant is big — not something you can grow in a dainty row between the lettuce and the sage. The specimen I have measures eight feet tall, and the base extends two feet across. I started it from seed at least 15 years ago and added nothing but water, yet it resurfaces every year like a subterranean missile, reaching full height in just a few weeks. Flowers appear around the end of May and go to seed by July.

The leaves of lovage look like those of celery: medium green and shiny with jagged, deeply toothed edges. Most of the plant is strongly aromatic when crushed with an odor vaguely redolent of anise. The stems are light green, round, and hollow and the greenish-yellow flowers are borne on umbels at the tips of the stems. The flower arrangement is good for bees although not so great for photography because, when I’m standing on the ground, the blooms seem light-years away.

People enjoy the nondescript flowers snipped and sprinkled atop a salad.
People enjoy the nondescript flowers snipped and sprinkled atop a salad.

Growing lovage is easy because it has few requirements other than lots of space. It prefers average soil, full sun to partial shade, and medium moisture. Although it can reseed itself, it is not invasive. In addition, the strongly scented plant deters most of the voracious herbivores, including deer and rabbits.

So why would you want this towering herb in your garden? Good question. Here is a quick summary of the possibilities.

Herbal Medicine

Not being a practitioner of herbal medicine, I cannot attest to any of the so-called cures this plant is reputed to perform. In any case, its history in the world of folk medicine is extensive. Most often it was used as an aid to digestion and a remedy for upset stomach. To administer lovage for these ailments, practitioners boiled the leaves into a tea or soaked them in sugar and brandy.

Similar concoctions were used to strengthen the heart and lungs, dissolve kidney stones, and purify the blood. In fact, it is hard to find an ailment that couldn’t be cured by the use of lovage, so who needs pharmaceuticals?

Because of its strong aroma, lovage is also used in the manufacture of hand and bath soaps, and as a fragrance component of cosmetics and lotions. In addition, lovage is said to be good for poultry, especially chickens, aiding in both respiratory and digestive health.

This lovage is about 8 feet tall, so leave plenty of space for it to grow.
This lovage is about 8 feet tall, so leave plenty of space for it to grow.

The Real Celery Seed

Oddly enough, the product we buy in the spice aisle labeled “celery seed” is not seed from cultivated celery, but rather seed from lovage or a closely-related plant called “smallage.” Smallage is Apium graveolens, also known as wild celery. While cultivated celery is also Apium graveolens, the seeds from the wild form are said to be superior for cooking. A mix of the wild form blended with lovage seed is better still, giving a richer flavor over a variety of recipes and cooking methods. Who knew?

Celery seed is commonly used in pickles, egg salad, coleslaw, fish stock, and homemade ketchup and barbecue sauce. Some chefs make “celery seed bread,” which is much like garlic bread with celery seeds substituting for the garlic. Preferably, celery seed is stored and used whole — not crushed — because the macerated seed can become strong and bitter.

Cooking with Lovage

Most people treat lovage like any other herb. The flowers, leaves, stems, roots, shoots, and seeds each have multiple culinary uses. The taste is usually compared to anise, parsley, or strong celery although, to me, the flavor is unique and doesn’t compare easily to other herbs.

Nowadays, the leaves are usually dried, crushed, and sprinkled into soups, stews, beans, frittatas, salads, or pickles. I keep a jar of dried leaves in the cupboard from year to year, using it when I want a homey fragrance. In England, the herb frequently seasons potato dishes, whereas the Germans and Italians prefer it with tomatoes. I tend to drop it in a stew of any type. In fact, the aroma of the sprouts as they break through the ground in spring reminds me of slowly simmering vegetable chunks and­­­­­­ a crusty loaf of warm bread.

Some people prefer to chop or process the leaves and freeze them into cubes that can be dropped into a boiling recipe. In either case, the dark green pieces bubbling in the pot look as yummy as they smell. Leaves and stems can be harvested at any time during the season.

Both the inconspicuous flowers and the young shoots are sometimes eaten in salads, and the roots can be boiled and eaten like other root crops, usually roasted, boiled, or fried. Some cooks like to chop the stems and toss them into soup or stew in place of celery, or they can be diced to season stuffing for poultry or fish.

Harvest sprouts in the spring and roots in either spring or fall. If you don’t eat the flowers, let them go to seed and harvest the seeds when they begin to turn brown. Freshly cut stems can be stuck in cocktails as a stir stick, decorative garnish, or drinking straw. No part goes to waste.

After drying the leaves in the sun or a food dryer, crinkle the dry pieces and keep them in a jar.
After drying the leaves in the sun or a food dryer, crinkle the dry pieces and keep them in a jar.

Lovage as a bee plant

The small yellow-green lovage flowers are not especially photogenic, but bees arrive in flocks. I often see dozens of honey bees on the sky-high flowers and once counted over forty on one plant. A paper titled “Flowers and Bees in Europe” lists the honey potential of lovage as 545 kg/ha (484 lbs/acre). No wonder the honey bees seem to like it.

John H Lovell in Honey Plants of North America (1926) doesn’t mention lovage, but he writes that celery grown for seed (wild-form celery, I assume) along the Sacramento River regularly yields surplus honey. He says the flowers “yield nectar freely,” which seems to be the case with lovage as well.

I can’t imagine growing enough lovage for a honey crop, but that’s okay. Although I’ve never tasted lovage honey, I have tried honey from the closely-related carrot. In my opinion, carrot honey is right up there with castor oil. It is acrid, bitter, and truly inedible, simply the worst honey ever, so I’m happy to pass on the lovage rendition.

I never see this bee genus, Colletes, anywhere at my home except on the lovage.
I never see this bee genus, Colletes, anywhere at my home except on the lovage.

Bring on the Bugs

However, I’m not a bee. The lovage in my garden apparently delivers loads of delicious nectar because the honey bees tank up on it daily. In addition, other bee species regularly stop by for a drink, such as the Colletes that I seldom see on anything else.

As an additional benefit, lovage is attractive to a wide range of beneficial insects. In fact, many gardeners plant lovage for this reason alone. Visitors to the stately plant include lacewings, ladybugs, parasitic wasps, syrphid flies, and tachinid flies. Collectively, these beneficial insects feast on aphids, caterpillars, cutworms, earwigs, leafhoppers, leaf miners, spider mites, squash bugs, thrips, and a host of other unsavory characters that would otherwise devour your garden.

A Butterfly Host Plant

If you’re not yet convinced of the value of lovage, here’s another reason to adore it. Even though lovage was introduced into North America, it turns out to be a valuable host plant for caterpillars of both the black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) and the anise swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon). The black swallowtail is common throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, south into Florida, and across the southern states into California. The anise swallowtail is a western species, common from British Columbia south into Mexico.

The butterfly larvae are fairly adaptable and apparently will happily chow down on any member of the parsley family including parsley, fennel, anise, dill, and of course carrots. But many gardeners report that lovage is their favorite and they will chew the young plants down to the ground. For pollinator aficionados, this is not a loss but a win, and people will gather around to watch the caterpillars munch and grow fat.

Pollinator Housing

At the end of the season, what do I do with the remaining lovage? I turn it into pollinator housing, of course. To me, this is the best thing about lovage and the real reason I grow it. The hollow stems make excellent nesting tubes for a variety of cavity-dwelling species, including mason bees, leafcutter bees, potter wasps, and mason wasps.

The stems come in all different diameters, from very wide at the base (actually too wide for nesting tubes) to very narrow at the top. Such an assortment of diameters attracts a variety of cavity-nesters, which is excellent for limiting monocultures within your pollinator condos. A diverse array of tenants is less likely to draw a monoculture of some predator, which makes for more biodiversity and a healthier pollinator environment.

These lovage stems of many different diameters were quickly filled by native cavity-nesting bees.
These lovage stems of many different diameters were quickly filled by native cavity-nesting bees.

Turning Stems into Tubes

As soon as the lovage leaves begin to turn yellow, I cut the stems at ground level so they are as long as possible and lay them flat in a sunny location. When they begin to dry but before they get crispy, I cut them into lengths with a pair of secateurs.

How long you cut the tubes depends on how you will use them. I usually try for at least 6-inch tubes because shorter tubes often yield an abundance of male bees. Longer tubes are more likely to give you a good ratio of males to females.

You can cut the stems just below the nodes, which provides a back end partition for the bees. Alternatively, or you can cut between the nodes so the stems have a uniform diameter and fit tightly into a pollinator hotel or nesting container. Either way can work, and the bees will provide a back partition if you don’t.

After cutting the leaves, I place the tubes in the sun to dry. I often use a Langstroth screened inner cover as a drying rack because it lets air move over and under the tubes. When drying is complete, I store the tubes indoors until spring.

I put the tubes outside in March and let the bees and wasps fill them, each selecting the size of tube that works best for them. Once filled, I store the tubes in a cool and dry place away from moisture and predators though the winter. The following spring, I place the tubes in a hatching box and hang a supply of fresh tubes nearby. The hatching box discourages the bees from re-using old tubes that may possibly contain pollen mites. After all the bees hatch, I discard the old tubes.

It’s easier to cut the stems before they dry. Use any length that works for your pollinator housing, although at least five or six inches works best for producing female bees.
It’s easier to cut the stems before they dry. Use any length that works for your pollinator housing, although at least five or six inches works best for producing female bees.
I often arrange lovage stems on a screened inner cover so they dry quickly.
I often arrange the stems on a screened inner cover so they dry quickly.

The Final Use

If you still can’t find a reason to grow lovage, I’m told the stems make excellent pea shooters. Now all you need to do is grow the peas.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Spokexx
Reply

Did your grandfather make scrapple??

Rusty
Reply

Ha! Yes, he did and my mother ate it. Me? I wouldn’t get near the stuff.

Joe
Reply

Hey!
We use the hollow stems as straws for our Bloody Caesar in Canada!

Just make sure there aren’t any earwigs in there first… 😉

Thanks for the detailed article.

Alan Herzfeld
Reply

Rusty: Fascinating article. Apparently, your one giant lovage plant did not contribute enough nectar to taint your honey.

Frank La Rosa
Reply

Hello Rusty, Thanksgiving greetings to you.

Thank you for the well written, fine piece about lovage. I enjoyed everything about it and shall grow some as soon as I can here. It has a leaf like the Italian survivor parsley that I like and grow.

The Warre hive is doing well.

I really like your comments about bees and related things.

Sincerely yours,

Frank La Rosa Mazza

Cindy Tanner
Reply

What an interesting and educational article! Will have to add lovage to my list to plant.🐝

Jim
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’m confused by this statement:

“I put the tubes outside in March and let the bees and wasps fill them, each selecting the size of tube that works best for them. Once filled, I store the tubes in a cool and dry place away from moisture and predators through the winter. The following spring, I place the tubes in a hatching box and hang a supply of fresh tubes nearby.”

Did you mean to say you out the tubes out in September?

Your posts are terrific!
Jim

Rusty
Reply

No, I didn’t say anything about September. I said I put the empty tubes out in March. Then, once they are filled, I store them in a cool and dry place until spring.

Most will fill by May or June, so that would be when I bring them in.

Gary Kaufman
Reply

Always love hearing about new plants for our small honey bee apiary and other native pollinators. The flipside to that is I have to be very careful about what I plant and where I plant it since we also have llamas as part of our lives. The first thing I always do is check on potential or known toxicity for livestock in general. And though there is no argument regarding lovage as good for humans from what you shared and what I read, there are indications that the plant is considered a problem for dogs and cats and horses.https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants/lovage This is one of those need to think about where or if I give this plant a try. Seed scattering always makes me twitchy. There aren’t a whole lot of resources available for llama specific toxic plants so we just live by the ‘if it’s bad for any livestock, think hard’ rule.

Rusty
Reply

Gary,

I know nothing about llamas, but the dogs, cats, horses, and cattle here avoid the lovage. Too smelly, I think.

Sharon
Reply

Hello, Rusty, and Happy Thanksgiving a few days ago.

Your last several articles have been better than good! Seems you always come up with something timely and on point.

My Mother likes scrapple…I have not worked up the nerve to try it…but maybe someday.

Thank you again for your articles. I feel like I am sitting in the living room with a friend when I read your posts.

Sharon

Rusty
Reply

Sharon,

Thank you! You make me feel like I’m succeeding.

Carin
Reply

Based on your previous article that listed it a good bee plant, I planted some lovage and I too thought the stems would make good nesting tubes. So now I must ask, what is a hatching box? 🙂

Carin
Reply

A Ha! Thank you so much for all the information you provide. I became a beekeeper three years ago and find your website a true blessing! You truly have a knack for sifting out a lot of the noise. Now I am on the hunt for a proper “emergence box” Best to you, Rusty!

amy
Reply

GREAT post! Much to try next gardening season!

Nina Bishop
Reply

What an interesting article! As a perennial buyer, I look forward to carrying lovage this spring for our customers. Thanks so much for sharing.

Bill McConnon
Reply

Great article about this plant. I have one in a raised bed garden, and all summer as I ride past it on my lawnmower, I pinch off a few leaves and crush them and take a long deep smell of it. It really does have a nice smell and reminds me of celery leaves. I have not used it for anything other than tubes for the mason bees a few times. I have never fed nor watered it, yet as you mentioned it comes back vigorous every year.

Thanks for sharing

Anoma Dasan
Reply

It’s always a pleasure to read your posts and articles Rusty. They inform, educate, delight, and amuse. So admire and appreciate your writing style too. A huge thank you!

Canterbury, Kent, UK

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