To some gardeners across the UK, particularly in the south of England, waiting until May to sow or plant out herbs might seem rather late but on the west coast of Scotland, waiting a little longer can definitely pay off.
The soil here is rather difficult to work with: a heavy clay soil, easily compacted, and near constantly wet from the sheer amount of rainfall in the region greatly reduces the choice of plants we can grow in our garden. In spite of this, it can also be an opportunity to test what will thrive in such restrictive conditions.
This year, I really wanted to focus on growing more native or naturalised plants to Scotland and see how they grow in an open, sunny site. Mixing meadowsweet with marsh mallow, hyssop and yarrow, alongside splashings of corn poppy and centring the design with a great, fragrant Southernwood shrub – which should be a feature of any garden, if not for its beautiful scent, reminiscent of citrus, then for its silvery foliage.
One plant I have been particularly enamoured with in the design is lovage, Levisiticum officinale. A relative of parsley, it carries notes of celery but with a more complex and slightly spicy flavour that makes a great culinary herb – although it should be used sparingly with only one or two leaves, enough to add depth to a soup dish or salad.
Unlike parsley and celery, it is not always available in supermarkets or grocers so growing it in the garden gives you an opportunity to experiment – not only in the kitchen but medicinally too.
Native to the Mediterranean, this is a vigorous growing plant that can reach a height of 2m and a width of 1m. If left to flower, you will be rewarded with umbels of green-yellow flowers that sit atop the attractive and aromatic leaves.
Be careful where you plant lovage though, as it can very quickly outperform surrounding plants, and be sure to know exactly where you want it to grow, as it has a long tap root which can be challenging to remove. This tap root, however, means the plant isn’t too fussy about the quality of soil as it can search for nutrients far deeper than more shallow rooting herbs in a poor soil.
Growing from Seed
If growing from seed, make sure to sow more than you think you will need as lovage has a very erratic germination rate, similar to celeriac. Sow into modules in autumn in good quality seed compost and let the seedlings over-winter in a sheltered, frost free area until they are ready to be planted out in spring. You can also buy lovage as plugs to plant out around the first week of May.
Historically, the plant was associated with love hence the common name lovage. In Medieval times, the plant was used extensively in love potions and as an aphrodisiac with users experimenting with all parts of the plant. It was found to stimulate the reproductive system and aid digestion, with many of the historic claims backed up in scientific research today.
In particular, the roots were consumed to aid urinary infections and reduce menstrual problems, and the seeds were chewed to reduce flatulence. Recent research has backed the diuretic effect of the plant and revealed both anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. Interestingly, the root has been found to engage in oestrogen-like activities in the body hence its use as a cure for menstrual problems in the past.
The unique taste of lovage means it has long been used to flavour liqueurs, and today it is the secret ingredient of Jagermeister and is used extensively in gins and vodkas.
A more gentle preparation might be a lovage infusion: brewing the dried leaves in filtered water for 10 minutes – perhaps adding yarrow or other herbs – and consuming 2-3 times throughout the day.
Thinking of all the plants in the garden this year, lovage is one I keep coming back to: not only for its versatility in the kitchen and for its wonderful medicinal properties, but for its aesthetic nature in the border. I hope you also find a spot for it in your garden, as I can guarantee it will be all the better for it.
Scott Galloway is a Glasgow based horticulturist and plantsman. Having worked in horticulture for five years, he specialises in kitchen garden production and herbs. He is particularly interested in the cross-cultural relationships people have with plants and how this defines their uses.
Working with the National Trust for Scotland, he created a Scottish naturalised herb garden at Greenbank Garden, and is currently writing about plants for the RHS in his role as Plant Profile Writer.
He is also building a National Collection of Bergenia in conjunction with Plant Heritage and hopes to be an authoritative voice on the genus.