Yesterday I ran errands to pick up: more discarded cardboard from the LCBO for the vegetable garden, a couple eavestrough adapters to hook up the rainbarrel, and some more sheep manure from Brock Road Nursery. At the final stop I could not resist wandering the greenhouses in faint hope of seeing an old, quiet friend. Sure enough, tucked behind some other herbs stood three pots of lemon verbena.
I first learned about Aloysia citrodora as a kid from my Sunset book Herbs : How to Grow. That slender guide introduced me to a lifelong passion for demure plants that show their big personalities with scent and flavour.
Two of my favourites are the lemony types: lemon verbena and lemon balm. I rarely bothered to cook with them, although lemon balm and butter go nicely on baked fish. Lemon verbena is a favourite ingredient in a handful of fresh herbs for the morning teapot. You can dry them, but, as with French tarragon and many other fine herbs, bottled flakes lack the subtle savour and fragrance of fresh leaves.
Lemon balm grows easily from seeds, so I started some this spring. It will transplant to the garden this week. Who cares if it spreads like crazy? It lacks the tough runners of its mint cousins and is easy to pull.
The more intense lemon verbena is not a mint but a tropical plant native to South America. I have never seen or tried growing it from seeds. It is a tender perennial here and will only survive by cuttings or repotting in the fall, though it languishes in indoor winter dryness. I have never even seen it flower, but it does not need to.
Honestly, I do not care to use the new plant. I just look forward to walking through the garden, brushing against it and catching a whiff of its heady lemon aroma. It sticks near one of my happy memory neuron bundles. Rarity and elusiveness are what make a thing treasure. As lilac flowers say “sweet, gentle spring” and wintergreen smells like deep shade of the forest, few things evoke a fine summer day like lemon verbena. We do not like to use our friends anyway—just enjoy their company.