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Lovage: a multipurpose pollinator plant

My small stand of lovage comes back strong every year and grows to be eight feet tall. Both native bees and honey bees love it, although the blooms are so far overhead I have trouble seeing who all is up there. The leaves are large and intricately cut, the stems are hollow, and the entire plant is highly aromatic.

Lovage or Levisticum officinale, is a member of the parsley family, which includes celery, anise, parsnip, carrot, dill, and caraway. The plant is native to the Mediterranean region and has a long history in herbal medicine. The roots, rhizomes, and leaves are said to cure a host of complaints. In fact, it’s hard to find an ailment that isn’t “cured” by the use of various lovage concoctions. Reports of overdose abound as well, so if you’re are into herbal medicine, be sure to do your homework.

Cooking with lovage

The lovage plant can grow eight feet tall, but the plants are not at all invasive.
The lovage plant can grow eight feet tall, but the plants are not at all invasive. © Rusty Burlew.

Most people use the plant like any other herb. The leaves, stems, roots, and leaves have various culinary uses, and the fragrance is used in soap and personal care products. Its taste is usually compared to anise or strong celery although, to me, the flavor is unique–different from either anise or celery.

For cooking, the leaves are usually dried and used in soup, stew, or any kind of potato dish. It is especially popular in potato soup, and a sprinkling of the dried dark green leaves makes an attractive addition. I have put it in stew so often I get hungry just walking by. Others add it to coleslaw, egg salad, or any dish that uses celery. Historically, lovage came to North America with New England settlers and became wildly popular with the Shakers.

While researching lovage online, I learned that 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. Cultivated celery is also Apium graveolens, but apparently seed for flavoring is more often collected from wild celery or lovage. The reason for this is not clear to me, although one source said the seed from both lovage and the wild form of celery are more strongly flavored and work better in recipes.

Lovage as a pollinator plant

The yellow-green flowers of lovage are not particularly photogenic, but are usually covered with honey bees. I often see dozens of bees at once sharing the sky-high blooms. A document titled, “Flowers and Bees in Europe” lists the honey potential of lovage as 545 kg/ha (486 lbs/acre). No wonder honey bees like it! John H. Lovell in Honey Plants of North America (1926) doesn’t mention lovage, but writes that celery grown for seed  (wild-form celery, I assume) along the Sacramento River yields a surplus honey crop. He says the flowers “yield nectar freely.”

The flowers of many plants in the Apiaceae family are known as good companion plants for agricultural crops because, in addition to pollinators, their nectar attracts parasitic wasps and flies as well as lady bugs. When not drinking nectar, these predatory insects feed on crop-damaging insects, making them valuable biological control agents.

Lovage as pollinator housing

I usually cut the lovage down to the ground at the end of the season. Last year, just as an experiment, I cut the hollow stems into lengths that would fit into the cans I use for pollinator housing. I didn’t know if they would dry intact or collapse, so I cut I bunch and arranged them in rows in direct sun. They dried perfectly, and I love the fact that the stems were all different diameters—perfect for pollinator housing because it lures a variety of bee types. A variety of bees living together are much less apt to transfer diseases and parasites to each other than a single-species population.

This spring I put the dried stems out, and most were quickly filled with spring tube-nesting bees. I’m really excited to see it work so well. Next spring, I will put these tubes in a hatching box to discourage re-use and give the bees a fresh selection of lovage tubes for the season.

Try a lovage plant yourself

So try it. Put lovage on your seed list for next year. The bees and beneficial insects will love the nectar, you can dry the leaves for cooking, you can collect the seeds to eat, your bees can make honey, you can fragrance your homemade personal products, and you can make pollinator housing with the stems. How is that for multipurpose?

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Honey bee on lovage. The flowers are not showy, but the bee sure like them.
Honey bee on lovage. The flowers are not showy, but the bee sure like them. © Rusty Burlew.
Lovage stems drying in the sun.
Lovage stems drying in the sun.
I dry the lovage leaves for cooking. Dried leaves on a notebook.
I dry the lovage leaves for cooking. © Rusty Burlew.
Filled lovage pollinator stems.
Filled lovage pollinator stems. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Kathleen Hoffer
Reply

Thanks for this! I’m always looking for new pollinator-friendly plants to add to my garden. Too many people think all they have to do is plant flowers, not understanding that many of these hybrids yield nothing of value for pollinating insects.

Elena Campbell
Reply

Thanks, Rusty. It’s on my list for the next stop to the big nursery here!

Trudy
Reply

I actually have been eyeing this in my local nursery the past couple of years. Now I will need to go get it and plant it! Thanks for the info that you provide on your site.

Richard Ralph
Reply

Does this plant come back every year?

Rusty
Reply

Yes.

Janet Wilson
Reply

Years ago I visited an herb farm, and lingered on a small bridge that was planted on each side with lovage, a plant I had never seen before. It was in full bloom and the height of the bridge put me at blossom level. I was enchanted with the astonishing variety of pollinators (many of which I had also never seen before) the plant drew…and bought some for my home garden, where it has grown ever since. A lovely, if large, plant.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Hey Rusty –

Does lovage spread by self-seeding? I deeply appreciate fennel, because its similar flower is a great lure for many different pollinators. But there is considerable push-back around fennel, because it sometimes spreads by seed in dense patches, and this habit gets judged harshly.

Glen

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

It hasn’t for me. I have one plant, pretty big, and it goes to seed but I’ve never had any of the seeds start.

Anna S.
Reply

Lovage is a great herb. I grow it and use it in salads or tomato dishes. My late mother used it in all kinds of soups. I didn’t know it’s such a good plant for the bees and other pollinators — thank you for posting this. I will let it produce flowers this year instead of eating too much of it!

Resa Sawyer
Reply

It will only spread by divisions and is a well-loved plant here in northern New Mexico, and it is also the preferred food source for the caterpillers of the swallowtail butterfly – they will eat it down to stubs.

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