by C. Darren Butler and Ann Clary
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Lemon Verbena is the queen of garden herbs, as royal in its fragrance and flavor among kitchen herbs as rose is in its beauty among flowers.
Just as words could never fully convey the form and beauty of a rose, they are unable to do justice to the fragrance of Lemon Verbena. It’s a lemony scent that is all its own, different than actual lemons or any other lemony herb. It has a bright or light zesty lemony smell and taste, slightly sweet and a bit perfumed, but also herbal, rich, and unique.
It comes as no surprise that Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora) is a member of the Verbena family, Verbenaceae. It’s native to South American but is grown widely throughout the world. It’s a perennial shrub that grows to 6 feet or more in mild climates, but can also be grown as an annual or overwintered indoors in cold-winter regions.
While individual plants may become quite large, it’s not invasive like Lemon Balm, with which it is sometimes confused. It may occasionally produce viable seeds but in my experience rarely self-sows.
With sufficient watering and fertile soil, Lemon Verbena grows an abundance of narrow, richly scented leaves. It produces clusters of small, attractive flowers, often in summer or late summer in colder California areas. For a multi-sensory garden experience, place the naturally attractive Lemon Verbena beside a path or in a bed that you pass frequently or anywhere that you’re able to brush past the leaves with your hand or body.
If you’ve hesitated with Lemon Verbena because the smell seems overpowering or too lemony, you might give it a second chance in the kitchen. In my experience its flavoring is milder than you might expect from the fragrance.
For best culinary quality, start with a plant, not seeds.
Lemon Verbena can be planted any time of year in mild California climate areas, normally late winter or early spring in cold-winter and hot-summer areas, but fall planting is possible in areas with mild or no frosts.
If planting in fall, do so as early as possible. Lemon Verbena is sensitive to cold temperatures and may drop leaves at temperatures of about 40°F and below. It may go dormant in response to cold weather or shorter days.
Many culinary herbs need minimal watering and tolerate infertile soil. Cultivation needs for lemon verbena are more like those of vegetables, like robust leafy greens such as chard or kale. It prefers fertile soil, sufficient water, and full sun at cool-to-warm temperatures of about 65° to 85°F. It tolerates part shade, and in hot-summer areas, afternoon shade is ideal to reduce stress and extend harvest of leaves.
Provide evenly moist soil for a few weeks after transplanting. Once established, plants prefer reduced watering, ideally a thorough watering about every 10 to 20 days during cool weather, once per week in warm weather, and more-frequently during hot weather. Plants may drop leaves or become diseased due to wet soil, poor drainage or constantly wet roots.
Lemon Verbena tends to be fussy and may drop leaves in response to difficult environmental conditions or stressors including heat, cold below about 40°F, too much or too little water, insufficient sunlight, and wet soil. It needs good drainage and may also grow larger than some gardeners may prefer, up to 8 feet in the mildest climates. For these reasons, GardenZeus recommends considering growing it as a container plant, which constrains its size, and makes it easy to move plants to optimize growth and harvest with changes in temperature and sunlight. Use a pot that’s at least 12 inches in diameter, or about the size of a 5-gallon nursery pot (or larger), unless you prefer very-small plants. Plant in potting soil or use a mixture of washed sand, compost, and topsoil.
Like vegetables, Lemon Verbena will benefit from fertile soil and regular fertilizing. Use a balanced fertilizer with sufficient nitrogen, composted chicken manure, or a cup or two of fresh chicken manure mixed into 5 gallons of water and applied once every few weeks.
Lemon Verbena tends to become tall and leggy even when it has sufficient sunlight. Cut or pinch back frequently to prevent legginess and maintain compact, bushy, attractive plants. It responds well to being cut back hard by as much as one-third for established plants, and typically grows aggressively in response to pruning when sunlight and fertility are sufficient.
Lemon Verbena is prone to infestations by whiteflies, aphids, spider mites during hot weather, and other sucking insects. Inspect plants every 2-3 days to catch infestations early. Control ants that protect aphids and other insects from predatory insects. GardenZeus recommends boric-acid ant bait. Remove sucking insects with a strong stream of water.
Hard frosts will kill Lemon Verbena, but established plants normally survive both overnight frosts and periods of hot weather. Extreme temperatures, difficult environmental conditions, or short days may result in dropped leaves and dormancy, but these are rarely fatal and often not even especially harmful to Lemon Verbena plants. I have seen plants recover and regrow from roots in spring after being exposed to repeated frosts that killed most or all stems to ground level, and under other difficult conditions that I had presumed must have killed the plants. Lemon Verbena in containers may drop leaves or go dormant after being brought indoors in response to reduced light.
Dormant plants may take several weeks to a few months to leaf out again. Plants that drop leaves from stress normally recover and regrow leaves when conditions improve. Minimize or avoid watering while plants are dormant, generally no more often than once every few weeks during periods without rain.
Harvest Lemon Verbena leaves at any time. Quality is best on cool dry mornings before leaves are in direct sun. Beginning a few weeks before a forecast of hot or cold weather, harvest leaves more aggressively.
Leaves have endless culinary uses from salads to flavoring water, vinaigrettes, and desserts; use them anywhere you want fresh and unique lemony flavor. Lemon Verbena imparts a unique and special flavoring when used for spicing simple dishes, such boiled rice or almost any otherwise-bland dish.
Its most popular use is undoubtedly for herbal tea. Use 2-3 tablespoons of fresh leaves or 1 tablespoon of dry leaves per cup of hot water (or to taste). Some may prefer to add sweeteners such as honey or stevia. Lemon Verbena is a good match for may tea herbs, and makes an especially delicious tea when mixed with spearmint or peppermint.
Fresh leaves may be too tough for some to eat whole; chop leaves finely for use in salads, or in most cases mince leaves before adding them to cooked dishes, or remove them after cooking. Chop leaves to optimize infusion of flavoring and in most cases remove from raw dishes before serving. Dry stems and use indoors to scent linen closets, pantries, bathrooms, or clothing drawers.
Have extra Lemon Verbena? Consider using Lemon Verbena as a part of a holiday gift. See Gifts from Your Garden: Grow Your Own Holiday Teas.