What’s Lovage Got To Do With It?
Georgia O’Keeffe: Herb-Loving, Long-Living, Salad Master
by Thea Fiore-Bloom PhD
In the early 1960s, Folgers was trying to convince American women they had one choice:
Buy Folger’s instant coffee…
Risk losing their husbands.
Georgia O’Keeffe chose “none of the above.”
Instead, Miss O’Keeffe chose to walk the New Mexican hills with her two chows, grow an unruly paradise of a garden, and create some of the best American art of the twentieth century.
What false choices have you opted out of falling for in the second half of life?
Georgia O’Keeffe kept on ignoring Madison Avenue’s plans for her throughout her near ninety-nine years on earth.
She just kept on painting. And sculpting.
She also kept on grinding her own flour, baking her own bread, making her own yogurt from local sheep’s milk, and living in her unique, feisty way.
I see Georgia O’Keeffe as having been a grounded sage of sorts, who had turned her share of personal suffering into wisdom, and whose steadying anchor in the stormy sea of life was the land.
For O’Keeffe was a natural gardener.
Much of her physical, emotional, and spiritual contentment stemmed from observing nature and growing and preparing food from herself and others who helped her manage her land.
Come with me on a short walk through the garden and kitchen of one of America’s favorite painters.
O’Keeffe’s Piece of Paradise in the Desert
A few years back, I took a pilgrimage to O’Keeffe’s home and studio in Abiquiú, New Mexico. It wasn’t surprising that her sparsely furnished, clay-walled home had the same dreamy yet stark look that her paintings have.
What surprised me was the whimsy and lush beauty of O’Keeffe’s garden.
Black, branchy tree shadows draped over coral-beige enclosing adobe walls.
Buzzing bees navigated through the plum, apple, and apricot trees.
Sagebrush, Russian olive, and greasewood trees graced the eastern rooms of the house where O’Keeffe’s sister, Claudia, often stayed (Lynes/Lopez, 216).
I felt enchanted by the property’s many whispering tamarisks.
(Here’s a beautiful article for deeper reading on the garden: How Georgia O’Keeffe’s Garden Keeps Growing Three Decades After Her Death.)
I imagined how the place would feel after a rainstorm with all the irrigation channels open to create paths of gurgling waterways.
Though the most memorable sound for me that day was the billowy rustle and percussive pop of clean, white sheets still set out to dry on O’Keeffe’s windy clothesline just west of the north garden.
This lucky clothesline was nestled between sweeping willow trees and fragrant lilacs.
In the north garden, O’Keeffe’s inky green junipers curved round in bonsai waves against the turquoise sky.
There it dawned on me that O’Keeffe did not just make a garden here; she created what the ancient Greeks referred to as a temenos.
What’s a Temenos?
A temenos is an ancient Greek word for a sacred enclosure or sanctuary.
It literally means “I cut.”
A temenos was a sacred bit of green surrounding a temple cut off from urban use.
Swiss psychologist Carl Jung later defined a temenos as a purposefully created, bounded place where one’s most important work is encouraged to come to fruition.
O’Keeffe made a clay-walled temenos at Abiquiú, where she grew and refined her thought process/ her artistic process in the midst of her wondrous garden.
Maybe we can all do this for ourselves?
We don’t need a Greek ruin or an elaborate folly.
Perhaps our own humble garden (be it a window box or Persian paradise) can be our own temene too?
Something to ground us every day.
O’Keeffe Enjoyed Herbs Every Day
O’Keeffe adored her small herb garden.
She enjoyed the unique flavor herbs imparted to her meals.
The artist also honored herbs for their sensual appeal. She appreciated the beauty of their physical forms, their tactile allure, and their varying enticing aromas.
The author Margaret Wood once was one of O’Keeffe’s live-in cooks/assistants in the artist’s later years. Wood describes the introduction O’Keeffe gave her to the herbal kingdom:
Wood said, “Miss O’Keeffe acquainted me with wiry tarragon, feathery dill, stalky lovage, bushy green and purple basil, and other herbs” (Wood, 1).
O’Keeffe’s unruly herb garden also gave forth sorrel, summer savory, chives, tarragon, parsley, marjoram, and many mints (Ibid, xiv).
But O’Keeffe’s herbs were not grown just for pleasure.
Like everyone and everything connected to her home, they had their work to do in Abiquiu.
O’Keeffe Put Her Herbs to Work
O’Keeffe was well aware of the restorative properties of herbs and their abilities to make a significant contribution to overall wellness.
She was a health nut, and she was amazingly strong, radiant, and active.
Georgia was still rafting the Colorado River and camping in the wilderness in her late seventies.
Nutrition and herbs had much to do with O’Keeffe’s vim, vigor, and long lifespan.
Salad was on the menu daily for lunch.
And though as she got older, O’Keeffe’s cooks often prepared meals, Georgia usually made the daily lunch salads with freshly picked lettuce, herbs, and vegetables (Wood, 1).
Did you know Georgia was an early adopter of the teachings of exercise and biochemist and bodywork pioneer Ida Rolf?
Or that O’Keeffe was good buddies with another rebellious biochemist, the nutritionist and author Adelle Davis (who wrote the groundbreaking 1954 book Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit)?
O’Keeffe Was a Foodie, a Slow Foodie
Like most prolific artists, O’Keeffe had a fierce and fast work ethic.
But when she was not working, she understood the pleasure and meditative importance of life in the slow lane.
And I want more of us artists to master to remember the wisdom of the slow lane.
One of O’Keeffe’s favorite books was the 1906 classic The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, which lyrically describes the Japanese tea ceremony, the merits of simplicity, and the philosophy underpinning tea (Udall, 220).
O’Keeffe enjoyed taking tea daily, often favoring a spearmint tisane plucked fresh from the garden and slowly served from her modest, yet comely, Japanese teapot.
Check out my post How Tea Can Make You a Better Artist! for the skinny on how O’Keefe and other artistic geniuses used tea to support them in making great art.
O’Keeffe’s recipes, like her teapot, were not meant to impress; they were no-nonsense and good for you. However, that did not mean food from her kitchen was bland or put together in a slapdash fashion.
Celebrity chef and author Deborah Madison has been quoted as saying the following about O’Keeffe’s ostensibly overly simple recipes:
“It looks as if there’s nothing special going on with the recipes, but read between the lines and everything that promises deep goodness is there, mainly the fruits of the garden translated with a sure hand into, say, a salad of torn herbs or a soup scented with lovage”(Wood, ix).
Why not peruse O’Keeffe’s personal recipe for salad dressing written by Margaret Wood and decide for yourself?
O’Keeffe’s Famous Herb Salad Dressing
From A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe, courtesy of The Museum of New Mexico Press, 2009© by Margaret Wood.
2 teaspoons herbs:
lovage, tarragon, dill, basil, parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons safflower oil or other high-quality vegetable oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste 1⁄4 teaspoon whole-seed mustard
2 garlic cloves
Herb salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste Pinch of sugar (optional) Chives, as garnish
Wash the herbs and pat them dry.
Then chop all herbs medium fine, except the chives.
Blend the olive oil and safflower oils with a fork, add the lemon juice and mustard.
Squeeze one medium garlic clove through a garlic press and add it to the liquid.
Then add the chopped herbs to the dressing.
Add herb salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Add a pinch of sugar if the mixture is too sour.
Allow this dressing to stand for an hour, if possible so that the herb and garlic flavors can permeate the dressing. This quantity will dress a salad for 4 to 6 people.
Before serving the salad, rub a wooden bowl with a garlic clove split in half.
Add the lettuce to the bowl. Pour the dressing over the lettuce and toss the salad. Chop the chives into 1⁄4-inch pieces and sprinkle them on top.
Note: There are quite a number of herbs included in this dressing.
For practicality, use the herbs available or preferred. Sliced or quartered sweet cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced small radishes, or chopped and seeded cucumbers are possible additions to this salad.
In the salad dressing, a variation for the lemon juice is balsamic vinegar; the vinegar lends a rich, slightly sweet taste to the dressing.
People get weirdly enthusiastic about salad when it has a homemade herbal dressing like this on it.
Maybe it’s the unique taste imparted by unusual ingredients like lovage.
Why does lovage keep cropping up in O’Keeffe’s kitchen? Because:
“Lovage is as zesty as celery and as pungent as parsley.
Where has this herb been all our lives?” – Gail Monaghan
Not to mention lovage seems great for you.
It sports a lot of vitamin C, and is crammed with quercetin (that’s the stuff in Tumeric everyone is talking about.
“Lovage has also been known as a medicinal herb for ailments including pain, inflammation, indigestion, joint pain, and headaches.”(From Why Lovage Deserves Love.)
And O’Keeffe loved her some lovage; it was her favorite herb.
Lovage and Love💚Potions
Georgia had this in common with the medieval emperor Charlemagne.
He was so enamored with the look and taste of lovage that he commanded all his estate gardens overflow with it.
However, lovage was not just a favorite with the royals.
Lovage was a staple in the healing gardens of monks and very popular amongst the common folk, as it was a vital in- ingredient in love potions.
In fact, lovage used to be commonly known as “love root.”
Etymologically, lovage was derived from two words: love and ache (ache being a medieval word for parsley)
So technically, lovage is the parsley of love.
For the last few centuries, though, lovage’s popularity has wilted, and with occasional exceptions, it has languished on the sidelines of herbal history.
O’Keeffe paid popular sentiment no mind and enjoyed lovage anyway. And so should you. Here are six ways to delight in that certain je-ne-sais-quoi nuance lovage can offer.
Six Sumptuous Ways to use Lovage
Roast It in a Chicken
Gail Monaghan of the Wall Street Journal recommends that cooks “Tuck a sprig or two inside a whole chicken or fish before roasting, and you’ll be rewarded with intriguing, je-ne- sais-quoi nuances; guests will be racking their brains to decipher the delicious enigma.” (Monaghan)
You can candy thick lovage stems to decorate a cake top or enhance homemade biscotti. Use them in a dish as you would use candied fruit pieces or the candied stems of angelica (lovage’s botanical cousin).
Eat it Like Bok Choy
Lovage stems can be simply steamed and eaten with a splash of balsamic vinegar.
Personally, I prefer to douse my steamed greens with a bit of Braggs Liquid Aminos… delicious and healthy.
As we saw earlier, O’Keeffe added lovage to salad dressing and used it for salad greens, but the craftiest way she deployed lovage was in her soups.
Lovage was actually the star ingredient that could make ordinary tomato soup, in O’Keeffe’s words, into something “quite special.” (Wood, 20).
Pretend It’s Fennel
Lovage’s root can be chopped, grated, or shaved like fennel. Include it as one of a few ingredients in an easy but daring salad combination.
For example, you could put it in a version of a blood orange salad served in Sicily, a country whose dishes benefit from an exotic North African influence.
Grate or chop lovage root over navel and blood orange sections, add a bit of mint, and some very thin slivers of red onion, and serve with a tangy, hot paprika vinaigrette.
Celebrate it in a Cocktail
Or better yet, use mature lovage stems as savory Bloody Mary straws.
O’Keeffe didn’t imbibe much, but that shouldn’t prevent you from occasionally partaking in a refreshing herbal cocktail.
When people ask you about the odd stalk in your drink, say you’re having an “O’Keeffe.”
For recipes on some of the above, check out Gail Monaghan’s fun Wall Street Journal article, Lovage Recipes for Summer.
How To Grow Lovage in Your Garden
Lovage is a member of the tasty Umbelliferae family, along with the likes of dill, celery, carrot, fennel, coriander, and parsley.
Given the right soil conditions, this perennial will reach six feet tall and resemble parsley on steroids.
If you want to experience lovage, you may have to order the seed online and grow it from seed.
And poor Charlemagne might be horrified to hear that many United States nurseries do not carry lovage seedlings, though some sell lovage seeds.
You may meet with more success in your own garden center.
Or you can buy some highly praised lovage seeds online right here for under three bucks.
Keep these four things in mind to grow it.
- Lovage likes a sunny spot.
- It does best in sandy soil with good drainage and a PH of around 6.5. (That’s in the range of most home gardens.)
- Keep it fairly moist.
- You can prune it back a bit when it shoots up tall.
(For improving your lovage’s odds of thriving, eyeball these lovage growing tips.)
I hope you try to grow lovage this spring.
I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes attributed to Cicero:
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
Cheers to your art and health!
May you live to be older and feistier than O’Keeffe herself.
*A version of my article here originally appeared in the book Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac (2016).
What’s your favorite herb?
Has gardening helped you in any way in your life?
I’d love to know in the comments below.
To get more info on Marie Chabot’s key role in the design and maintenance of O’Keeffe’s garden and to see how its irrigated check out this video:
Lisle, Laurie. Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.
Lynes, Barbara Buhler, and Agapita Lopez. Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Houses: Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. New York: Abrams, 2012.
Udall, Sharyn Rohlfsen. Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000. Underhill, Linda L., and Jeanne Nakjavani. “Plant Profile:
Lovage Herb.” Mother Earth Living. October/November 1992. www.motherearthliving.com/gardening/herb- gardening/lovage-herb-zmaz92onzgoe.aspx.
Wood, Margaret. A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe. Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2009
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Herbs are pure magic….I love to buy bunches of parsley and keep them in mason jars of water just like fresh flowers.
Wow Lola, that is such an out of the box, gorgeous, creative idea! An underwater bouquet! I love it. Perhaps even an upside down under water bouquet… Reminds me of alembic jars in a row filled with possibility in the study of alchemist/herbalist/ scientist. You are such an inspiration to me. No wonder I love your art.
Thanks Thea, very interesting! This is a side of O’Keeffe I didn’t know, but like a lot.
Speaking of herbs, one of my plans for 2023 is to grow an herb garden on my balcony, and one of the herbs I would dearly love to have is… lovage! One of my all time favorites. Among my earliest memories is the smell of lovage in my mother’s homemade vegetable soups. It’s too bad this herb has fallen out of favor, it’s so good! When I lived in Illinois I was lucky enough to snag a tiny lovage plant at a local herb sale, which rewarded me profusely year after year. Too much for my own kitchen, I was happy to share the harvest with friends.
Thanks also for listing additional ways to use lovage, will have to keep those in mind.
A tip (this also works for other herbs): before the first frost, harvest your lovage, wash and mince, and put in an ice cube tray in the freezer for use in winter soups and stews.
Wishing you and all your readers a happy, healthy, and flavorful New Year, Thea!
You are a marvel Mineke. A renaissance woman. So few folks know the ways of lovage. And generous to share it with friends,once again, I wish you were MY neighbor. I would be skulking around your door in winter, trying to wheedle a few iced herb squares out of you. 🙂
It is so interesting what you say about herbs coming in and out of fashion.
Does that also happen with paint colors for watercolorists or oil painters?
Will pthalo blue be the it-girl some day?
(Oh I want to include a link to a photo of a mature lovage plant to show folks why you could have so much of it. This image also gives an indication of its stalk-i-ness of it.) This one is 9 feet high.
That would be fun if we were neighbors! No skulking needed, I’d gladly share my herbs with you 🙂
I do think paints also go in and out of fashion. I’ve noticed a resurgence of interest in organic and handmade paints in certain circles, while in other circles artist seem to go for sets of (watercolor) paints of certain brands that have fancy names (clever marketing, if you ask me). But… I think pthalo blue will always be an acquired taste.
Wow, that’s a great lovage photo! I was looking for a photo of mine, but couldn’t find one quickly. They do grow very tall, then they die down for winter, and reemerge in the spring. Unless you plan to harvest seeds, I think it’s best to trim them before they flower.
Suhail Mitoubsi says
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Thea. I read quite a lot about
Georgia O’Keeffe. One of my favourite quotes ever, she said: “I found I
could say things with colours and shapes that I couldn’t say any other
way – things I had no words for.”
It is the best way to describe my abstract art and why I make abstract
paintings. I used this quote several times in my blog posts. A great
Thank you so much and wishing you all the best.
What a beautiful quote Suhail! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. It does communicate that ineffable process behind abstraction. Have you ever read any work by Rudolph Arnheim? He might be familiar to you already. But if not, his book Visual Thinking blew me away.It’s not a beach read, but the parts I grasped were so thought-provoking for me. You and he have some similar philosophies I think.
Suhail Mitoubsi says
Thank you, Thea, and really appreciate your blog posts and creative ideas. I think we need to learn what beauty is. So many of us look at the outlook appearance. But what really counts is the inward true beauty. That’s harder to find. But we can learn from the masters of the universe. Nature is the truest beauty you will ever encounter. And I’m not talking about a beautiful flower or the amazing colours of the sunset. Look closely at the decaying tree leaves and the amazing undergrowth. This is where the utmost beauty is created in complete harmony and balance. I wish we could learn from it.
Poignant observations. Have you written a blog post on this yet?? I think it would be a great post for you to have on your blog.
Suhail Mitoubsi says
I have, Thea. It took me several months to write a blog post about The Beauty of Imperfection in Abstract Art. The article and also my abstract painting is entirely inspired by the magnificent beauty of nature. The beauty of imperfection. There is no such thing as perfection in human life. But there is in nature. It took me many long years to overcome perfectionism, only by closely observing this outstanding perfection of imperfection that I could only find in nature. It started with noticing that nature doesn’t do straight lines, only humans do. And that was the beginning of a long journey of learning this unique beauty you can find in imperfection.
Can you leave a link to that blog for us Suhail?
I wanted to leave you all a link for how to go on the guided tour through O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu garden:
But now I want to know….what is your favorite herb??