Lemon verbena is a deciduous shrub, with lemon scented pointed leaves. Found cultivated around the world, it is one of the herbs that migrated from the New World to the Old. Spanish explorers found lemon verbena in Argentina and Chile, and were so taken with it that they took it back home with them. Today, it is grown mostly in containers. In Gone With The Wind, Scarlet O'Hara's mother preferred it as her favorite fragrance. Here, we will discuss lemon verbena - its history, medicinal; and culinary uses, how it is grown, and how to harvest, store and make use of its unique lemon fragrance.
History of Lemon Verbena
In the 17th century, Spaniards returning home brought lemon verbena with them. There, it was prized for its aromatic lemony oil, and was used in perfumes and beverages. Because lemon verbena came from the New World, there is little history or legend about it. However, it has been used as an herbal remedy for centuries, and is especially noted for its fresh, lemony scent.
Due to its late introduction into Europe, lemon verbena doesn't figure as an important medical herb. In folk medicine, it has been used as an aid to digestion and allegedly has a tonic effect on the stomach and intestines. It is given credit as a sedative and fever reducer. The essential oil is extracted through steam distillation. This oil is said to be acaricidal and bactericidal. Pure oil of verbena is expensive, so it is often diluted with other distillates.
Lemon verbena is used in teas, but its great flavor can be used in other dishes as well. Whenever you want a touch of lemon in a dish, use a few fresh leaves. Fresh and dried leaves go well with fish and poultry. It is often added to vegetable marinades, salad dressings, jams and jellies, and puddings, along with beverages.
TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Karen Bosin adds, "Equal amounts of freshly cut mint and lemon verbena make a delicate and delicious tea. Heat water to almost boiling, and steep for 3-4 minutes. Remove the leaves and enjoy. This is also terrific cooled and served with ice."
How To Grow Lemon Verbena
Lemon verbena is a deciduous shrub that can attain a height of 15 feet under optimum conditions. In cooler climes, it typically will reach 5 feet. It has lance-like leaves that are light green, pointed and either slightly toothed or without. They are fringed with hairs, and about 2 to 4 inches long. Lemon verbena has tiny, tubular lavender flowers on spikes from the leaf axils. It flowers in late summer and fall.
Lemon verbena is generally started from cuttings taken in late summer. The plant goes to seed infrequently, so planting from seed may take a long time to get it established. The herb is hardy through zones 9 to 10. It prefers a pH balance of 6.5 and likes rich, moist soil. It prefers to grow in full sun.
Unless you live in a very mild climate, lemon verbena is best grown in containers. Plant it in a loamy soil as you would geraniums. Be sure to keep it moist but not soggy. The herb is a heavy feeder, so regular applications of fish emulsion are good for it. To make lemon verbena shrubby, pinch it back. To prevent mites from colonizing, wash the leaves and mist weekly. The herb is susceptible to spider mites and whiteflies, which can be eradicated by an insecticidal spray or through sticky yellow traps.
Plan on bringing the plant indoors in the winter months. Put pots on a hard surface to keep roots from escaping. If the roots escape and establish, it will suffer shock to the roots, and when broken free from the ground, will shorten the life of the plant.
Harvesting and Storage
Cut the plant back halfway in midsummer and then again before first frost. The sprigs may be harvested year around.
Tips For The Chef
The leaves of lemon verbena have a tendency to be quite tough, so remove them as you would a bay leaf when preparing marinades beverages and salad dressings.
When baking carrot, zucchini or banana bread, add fine crushed leaves to the batter for a lemony taste.
If added to rice, it will give it a unique lemony taste. Add minced lemon verbena just before serving.
Lemon verbena is a wonderful herb that is best used as a cosmetic and aromatic. It isn't hard to grow, and the pleasant scent when you brush against it will make it a very attractive addition to your herb garden.
photo (c) Evert, 2002 davesgarden.com/members/Evert/