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Georgia O’Keeffe: Lovage-Loving, Long-Living, Garden Maven
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 Garden: A 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.
More Than a Garden, O’Keeffe Made 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 From Her Kitchen Garden
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.
Georgia Put Her Garden 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 Fresh from the Garden Recipes
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.
Georgia’s Garden Salad Tweaks
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.
Why Was the Lowly Lovage Given a Starring Role in O’Keeffe’s Garden?
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.
Love💚Potions Straight From The Garden
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 Garden 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