Lovage: The Easy-Peasy Celery

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Celery (Apium graveolens dulce) is a persnickety vegetable that only seems to thrive on constant attention. It is slow growing, so you need to start it indoors in most climates, but hates hot summers, so, unless you live in a climate where temperatures rarely rise above 70˚F (21˚C), you have to mulch it and sometimes even shade it. Nor will it tolerate dry soil. For the best taste possible, you have to blanch its stems. Yet even when you have finally succeeded in producing a good crop, you have to start all over the next year, as it is grown as an annual (in fact it’s a biennial that is harvested the first year).

Might I suggest you cultivate instead its perennial doppelgänger, lovage (Levisticum officiale)?

Perennial Celery

Lovage is closely related to celery, not only genetically (both belong to the Apiaceae), but also physically and tastewise: if you tried to make the case that it’s a giant perennial form of celery, not many people would fault you.

The pale yellow umbels are borne on very tall stems. Photo: http://www.amazon.com

In spring, lovage produces a rosette of shiny green tripinnate leaves with long petioles and triangular toothed leaflets … so similar to those of the celery you could easily mistake the two. By early summer, though, you’ll discover that lovage is a much bigger plant, 4 to 8 feet (1.2 to 2.5 m) tall when in bloom and 3 feet (90 cm) in diameter. The flower stem that rises from the rosette is hollow, as are the leaf petioles. The stem leaves are smaller with fewer leaflets than the rosette leaves. At the top of the stem, usually in June and July, depending on the local climate, the plant bears multiple umbels of not unattractive pale yellow flowers very popular with pollinating insects.

You can drink tomato juice (or a Bloody Mary) using a hollow petiole as a straw. Photo: http://www.macombdaily.com.

The whole plant smells like celery and is traditionally used as a substitute for celery. Its taste is a bit stronger than the celery, though, so use a little less in your recipes. The hollow petioles also make great straws. Try using them with tomato juice, as the combined flavors of tomato juice and celery give a taste very similar to V-8. The leaves, stems, seeds and even roots are also edible. Seeds, in particular, have a taste of fennel and can be used to flavor food. As for the leaves, they can be stored frozen or dried for use all year.

Lovage is also a medicinal plant, used in particular to help digestion and prevent kidney stones.

Growing Lovage

Lovage is a long-lived perennial. You can grow it in the vegetable garden, of course, but, with its attractive flowers and neatly cut leaves, lovage is pretty enough to deserve a place in the flowerbed. It’s the ideal choice for foodscaping, so much in style right now.

Lovage coming into bloom at nearly 8 feet (2.5 m) tall. Photo: Anra2005, Wikimedia Commons

Lovage couldn’t be easier to grow. It adapts to a wide range conditions, from full sun to partial shade, and any well-drained soil will do, although it grows best in rich, fairly moist soils that are not too alkaline. And it is hardy in zones 3–8. Lovage doesn’t seem to suffer from any serious insects or diseases and is deer and rabbit resistant. There are no cultivars that I know of.

The More the Merrier

Lovage is most easily multiplied by division (it produces occasional offsets), as it can be a bit tricky to grow from seed. I had little luck with packaged seed, but freshly harvested seeds, sown outdoors in August when it matured, sprouted readily. Its growth from seed is rather slow. It may take 3 or even 4 years to reach full size.

Next time you’re in a garden center, especially one that has a good herb department (although most gardeners use lovage as a vegetable, merchants seem to see it as a herb), see if you can find it. If not, many companies offer it on-line.

I find that most frustrated celery growers never look back once they’ve discovered lovage!

Adapted from an article originally published on April 26, 2015. 

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Grow Your Own Drinking Straws

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Commercially produced rye straws. Source: www.harveststraws.com

With the controversy over plastic straws and their negative effect on the environment running at fever pitch (what media has not run a story—or two or three!—on the subject over the last few weeks?), why not think back to the original drinking straw: plants!

Yes, for thousands of years, humans have used plants with hollow stems as drinking straws, often in order to drink only the liquid and not the sludge (let’s say water sources in former times were not nearly as limpid as those today).

The Original Drinking Straw

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Straw, the residue of cereal-growing, makes a great drinking straw. Source: Hans, pixabay.com

The name “straw” for the drinking tube we use actually comes from the fact that straw, that is, the cut stem of cereal grasses, was the original drinking straw. The stems of grasses are hollow, except at the nodes, so make great drinking straws if you cut them just above one node and below the one above.

You can still do this and, marketers are even now working on reintroducing dried and sanitized cereal stem straws (rye is best) as a plastic straw replacement. I don’t know that you’d want to make your own drinking straws from a straw bale picked up at a garden center (who know where it has been!), but you certainly can cut the fresh stem of any grass of appropriate dimensions and use it as a straw.

Other than harvesting cereal stems from a farmer’s field near you (do ask for permission, of course!), you could use wild grasses or even ornamental grasses from your garden.

Ryegrass (Lolium spp.), a common wild grass in most areas, was the precursor of the paper straw (that later morphed into the plastic one we know today) and was sold as a drinking straw in the late 1800s. You can probably find ryegrass growing in a field near you.

Common reed (Phragmites australis) is also a widespread grass you can use as a drinking straw.

Bamboo also makes a great drinking straw. Again, cut a section between two nodes, as their stems too are hollow except where two sections join together. There are all kinds of bamboos, literally hundreds of species, some far too large for straws, some too thin, but others are “just right,” including some of the Phyllostachys species. There are already dried, prepared bamboo straws on the market.

Herbal Straws

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Lovage straws are perfect for bloody Marys! Source: http://www.agardenforthehouse.com

There is a long history, too, of using herbs with hollow stems, all in the carrot (Apiaceae) family, as straws and they actually flavor the drink. The best known is lovage (Levisticum officinale), which imparts a celery-like flavor to the liquid imbibed and is ideal with bloody Marys and tomato juice. Angelica (Angelica archangelica and other species), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), also give flavored drinking straws. If you find their taste too intense, you can always candy them (soak them in cane sugar, then dry them) to give a sweeter flavor to drinks.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon spp.) will also flavour drinks when used as a straw.

I would not recommend harvesting hollow stems from wild plants unless you know what you’re doing. The same Apiaceae family that provides lovage, angelica and fennel also includes hemlock (Conium maculatum) and other poisonous plants. And although generations of musicians have made flutes from the easily hollowed-out stems of elderberry (Sambucus spp.) and their stems could just as easily make straws, authorities today consider all parts of elderberry other than the flowers and cooked berries of certain species to be poisonous, so I would not recommend trying.

Single Use?

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Fennel straws. Source: projectazulverde.com

Most natural straws are going to be of the single-use variety. Not only do many simply start to disintegrate after use, but, being natural products, are subject to the buildup of microbes, some not terribly good for humans. Just drop them in the compost when you have finished with them.

Bamboo straws are longer lasting, but you still have to clean them thoroughly after each use.


Homegrown drinking straws: talk about sustainable!20180807C www.harveststraws.com