My interest in lovage and caraway first started because they attract beneficial insects. Like all plants in the "umbel" family, (also known as the "carrot family"— technically the Umbelliferous or Apiaceae family), lovage and caraway have a flower head somewhat shaped like an umbrella. The curved flower stems are topped with small shallow flowers that are clustered in yet another small umbrella. This structure creates an open, exposed nectary, so that predatory insects have easy access to nectar, which, in addition to the pollen and honeydew that plants provide, is a side dish to their main course of insects.
It's becoming more and more widely known how important beneficial insects are for pollinating our food supply, but I don't hear as many people talking about how predatory insects keep our insect populations in balance. Some beneficial insects eat the garden pests that cause us the most headaches; others are parasitic, using garden pests as hosts. The more beneficial flowers in our garden system, and hence the more predatory insects, the less likely we are to rely on pesticides to keep pests in check. Sure, choosing organic rather than conventional sprays is a good first step to a healthy ecosystem, but even some organic sprays have detrimental effects to beneficial insect populations. Not to mention the health of the person spraying the natural pesticide if proper precautions are not taken.
Now that lovage and caraway are in my garden, I'm also appreciating them for their aesthetics as well as their culinary and medicinal uses. Lovage's lush abundant yet wispy vegetation adds a softness to the herb garden. The shiny, finely cut leaves are aromatic, with a scent similar to celery. It is a perennial that produces offsets that can be divided into other plants, so it reliably stays in the landscape year after year.
Caraway is nice in the garden this time of year as it's flowering when few of my other beneficials are in bloom. It's perfect for the herbaceous layer of the orchard—it doesn't grow so tall that it towers over young dwarf trees as might fennel, a fellow umbel.
Caraway leaves are fun to munch on as their texture encourages you to keep chewing until they're gone. A little goes a long way in salads, adding just a hint of a dill-like flavor to bland lettuce.
I like lovage stems chopped and added to soups—it has a celery-like aroma and crunch to it. I also put lovage leaves in my teas for the extra digestive support. When using medicinal herbs, I prefer to work with plants that are associated with a wide range of benefits, yet with effects that are mild and generally support good health. Lovage is a prime example of how food is medicine, like the old adage says.
Type of Plant: Medium to tall herbaceous perennial, beneficial, edible, medicinal
Flower: Pale yellow in an umbel (similar to fennel) in summer
Spreads: The fleshy taproot expands fairly quickly to form a sizable clump, which can be divided after a few years. It also multiplies by seed, so cut the flower after it goes to seed to prevent unwanted spread.
Garden Location: Full sun to part-shade in rich, moist soil with good drainage. Good border plant. Deserves a prominent location in the rear or edge of the garden. Hyssop and catmint complement it well. If harvesting seed, plant in a different location than other Umbelliferous plants that go to seed such as dill and fennel. This ensures a pure seed stock.
Plant Maintenance: Add compost once a year and keep mulched.
Ecosystem/Garden Uses: Attracts beneficial insects such as lacewings, ladybugs, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps and tachinid flies. So if you have an abundance of any of the following, the beneficial insects will help balance the populations so they'll be less of a pest in the garden: aphids, caterpillars, Japanese beetles, bean beetles, squash bugs, squash vine borers, leafminers, tomato hornworms, white flies, scale, mites, mealybugs, asparagus beetles, corn earworms, spider mites, psyllids, adelgids, thrips, leafhoppers, cucumber beetles, cutworms, earwigs, sawflies, cut worms.
Medicinal/Edible Uses: Mainly for respiratory tract concerns and improved digestive health. It is considered a carminative, which means it is rich in aromatic volatile oils that stimulate the digestive system to work properly and with ease, soothing the gut wall, reducing inflammation and pain, and helping the removal of gas. It also loosens phlegm and is a diuretic. It may help regulate menstrual cycles, prevent kidney stones, cleanse blood and relieve joint pain.
Nutrients: Some sources say it's high in Vitamin C and contains Vitamin A, calcium, carbohydrates and protein.
How to Cook with It: All parts of the plant are edible. Snip leaves and stems at any point during the season, cut off seed umbels when fully ripened in late summer or early fall, and harvest roots in spring or fall. Stalks are good substitutes for celery, especially in soup or stuffing recipes. Use the stem as a straw in a Bloody Mary. Try candying the stems. Seeds are known as "celery seeds" and can be sprinkled over fruit or in pastries. Dry leaves and seeds for winter use.
Other Ways to Use Its Medicine: Use roots, leaves, stems and seeds, fresh or dried, in teas, tinctures, syrups, foot soaks, and in baths.
Type of Plant: Medium-sized biennial, culinary herb, beneficial, medicinal, edible
Flower: Tiny white spring and summer flowers that are striking when clustered together in umbels against the feathery leaves.
Height: 8" first year, 2-3' second
Spreads: Reseeds readily, so much that it has naturalized in Northeastern United States. Since it's a biennial, only living for two years, you may want to encourage a little self-seeding.
Garden Location: Full sun in well-drained soil high in organic matter. Great in orchards.
Plant Maintenance: As long as it's planted in the proper location, it is relatively maintenance-free.
Ecosystem/Garden Uses: Attracts beneficial insects such as parasitic wasps, lacewings, syrphid flies, minute pirate bugs, and big-eyed bugs. These predatory insects help control many of the pests listed above for lovage as well as more insects, including flea beetles. Some sources say it also chokes out quack grass.
Medicinal/Edible Uses: For digestive support since it's a carminative. Sources claim it also relieves cramps, helps loosen phlegm, regulates menstrual cycles, improves local blood flow to relieve bruising, and is anti-microbial.
Nutrients: Reportedly potassium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium, fiber, Vitamins C, A, E and B complex, phytochemicals that are powerful antioxidants, limonene (a detoxifier assisting enzymes in the liver), carbohydrates and protein
How to Cook with It: Used in rye bread and sauerkraut. Leaves can be added to salads and roots can be eaten with other vegetables.
Other Ways to Use Its Medicine: Usually taken as a tea, but can also be made into a tincture.
References for this article included Attracting Beneficial Bugs by Jessica Walliser and Homegrown Herbs by Tammi Hartung.
Order lovage, caraway and other beneficial flower starts by contacting Megan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828.333.4151.