Lovage or Love’s Ache

Levisticum officinale photographed by H. Zell

Levisticum officinale photographed by H. Zell

The lovage plant (Levisticum officinale) has been cultivated for medicinal and culinary use for many years – so long, in fact, that the exact native region of the plant is unknown because humans were so swift to spread it across the globe. With a taste reminiscent of celery, the leaves, roots, and seeds have been used as a folk medicine for ailments from kidney stones to migraines. Contemporary research shows the root has high diuretic properties and its tea is effective for expelling gas in both children and adults.

But the entomological breakdown of the name shows that the plant was known for its abilities in love. From Wikipedia:

The name ‘lovage’ is from “love-ache”, ache being a medieval name for parsley; this is a folk-etymological corruption of the older French name levesche, from late Latin levisticum, in turn thought to be a corruption of the earlier Latin ligusticum, “of Liguria” (northwest Italy), where the herb was grown extensively. [In]  Italian [it is] levistico or sedano di monte, French livèche, Romanian leuştean, Hungarian lestyán, Russian любисток lyubeestok, etc. In Bulgaria, it is known as девесил deveseel. The Czech name is libeček, and the Polish name is lubczyk, both meaning ‘love herb’. The name in Swedish is libbsticka. The official German name is Liebstöckel, literally ‘love stick’.

Indeed, lovage has been noted as an aphrodisiac since ancient times – the Emperor Charlemange even planted the love herb throughout his garden.  Apparently, a potion brewed from the roots of the plant and given to a woman would “melt” her frigid disposition and make her agreeable to… well, let’s call it wooing. Soaking in a warm bath sprinkled with lovage leaves would leave you irresistible to others.
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The Rose

Rosa gallica photographed by Radim Holiš

Rosa gallica photographed by Radim Holiš

No matter how you try to spin it, you cannot separate Valentine’s Day from the red rose.  It has been associated with love and beauty  in almost every culture for thousands of years. In classic Greek mythology the rose was stained red by the blood of the love goddess Aphrodite, herself. The ancient Romans cultivated Rosa gallica and featured its blooms in the wedding ritual both by decorating the bridal couple and decorating the centerpieces of the wedding feast.  In North America the native tribes gathered wild roses for courtship as well as medicinal use. A ghazal written by a Persian mystic Hafez tells it is the beauty of the rose that causes the nightingale to sing. By the medieval period, the rose was associated with the purity of the Virgin Mary in Christian mythology.

In the colonial period, William Penn brought English roses back to the Americas in 1699 and John Adams planted the first rosebush at the famed White House garden. This doesn’t relate so much to the history of the rose as a token of love, but I think it’s a cool fact. Continue reading

Peony: the queen of flowers and PMS

Paeonia lactiflora photographed by Ulf Eliasson

Paeonia lactiflora photographed by Ulf Eliasson

Based on my time working in for a florist there is but one flower that can rival the almighty Rose as the favored token of love: the Peony. Interestingly, peonies are the most requested flower for weddings and are a symbol of fertility in western mythology and wealth and good fortune in the east. However in the Victorian language of flowers the peony says that the sender is too bashful (or ashamed) to admit their amorous feelings.

There are many different species of peony within the genus Paeonia but it is the Chinese (or White) Peony (Paeonia lactiflora) that is most commonly used medicinally. Traditionally, the root is prescribed for dysmennorhea (often in combination with licorice) and PCOS as well as premenstrual syndrome. It works by preventing prostaglandin F2 alpha production. Prostaglandin F2 alpha is a lipid compound that is created by the uterus that stops progesterone production when there was no implantation during the menstrual cycle. When prostaglandin F2 alpha binds to its receptors in the body it stimulates uterine contractions and menstruation begins. In some women, an excess of prostaglandin F2 alpha is made which creates more contractions of the uterus causing the pain associated with dysmennorhea and PMS cramping.

Of course those uterine contractions can be taken one step further: white peony root has been used as an abortificient in both eastern and western medicine.

So this Valentine’s Day, if you want something instead of roses for your beloved, consider the peony bouquet and you Brides to Be take note: nothing says love and romance like the contractions of the uterus.


Licorice: coughs, cramps, and cigarettes


Glycyrrhiza glabra (Image: Greg Kenicer, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh)

In any group of people there are the licorice lovers and the licorice haters. It’s polarizing. But whether or not you can stand the taste of this ancient herb, it has been used for thousands of years for a variety of ailments.

The medicinal use of the Licorice plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra) was first recorded on an Egyptian papyrus dating to the Roman Empire and the first Chinese herbal has an entry for the herb as well. Our friends Pliny and Hippocrates also wrote about the benefits of licorice. And what did all their recommendations have in common? Sore throats. Even today if you check out the ingredients of any herbal cough drop or syrup you will see licorice as an ingredient. Why? Because it works!

But Licorice also contains compounds that mimic estrogen. Specifically found in the root of the plant (which is where the flavor usually comes from, as well) the isoflavonoids glabrene and glabridin can act like estrogen in the body, making licorice an effective herb for both menopause and menstrual cramps. For this reason it is recommended to abstain from licorice while pregnant as it has been known to induce uterine contractions in large doses (but those doses can vary from person to person). Continue reading

One Wise(man) Gift: Frankincense

As my family collapsed in the living room last night, stuffed and exhausted from a day of visiting and eating and eating and presents and more eating my father asked me a trivia question (which is how my family celebrates every and all holidays and gatherings): “Hey Sarah, what is another name for Boswellia?”

I was stumped. “I’ll give you a hint,” he told me, “it’s an herb…” And still, I had nothing.

So then he retreats to the kitchen and comes back with his bottle of Boswellia serrata – Frankincense. Who knew? Of course it was Christmas themed plant trivia.

Boswellia sacra

Boswellia sacra

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