Welcoming an Old Friend: Lemon Verbena

Lemon Verbena
Lemon Verbena

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.



10 thoughts on “Welcoming an Old Friend: Lemon Verbena

  1. Is it a perennial? I’ve got lemon balm somewhere in that mint forest of mine, but I’ve never been quite sure how to use it. I’ve been thinking I should do an inventory of the herbs I’ve grown so I can give more thought on how to use them, growing them differently, etc. Now you’ve got me thinking that lemon balm might be nice in blueberry jam…or even strawberry, for that matter. Thanks, Van!

    Also, why sheep manure?

    1. Lemon verbena is a tropical perennial. Its flavour and aroma are a little more vivid than lemon balm, but the texture is a little coarser. Lemon balm and blueberry jam is an excellent idea.

      I don’t know why sheep manure. I didn’t do any research on the advantages of different types. My partner and I are both serious fibre crafters so we have a fondness for sheep. I can get free chicken bedding from a friend, but it requires driving half an hour, while the nursery is right around the corner. Do you have a preference?

    2. Joan, my friend in Hobart, Tasmania says lemon verbena can over-winter there in a frost protected area. Might conditions be as favourable for you?

  2. It’s one of the herbs I bought, and with some of the more exotic mints will go into pots outdoors and come into the plant room next winter. I’m going to try keeping strawberry mint and pineapple mint this winter, and I just found some pineapple sage today.

    1. Those all sound nice, Sue Ann. Pineapple sage is another one of my favourites and I would have bought it but it did not turn up at the local garden centre.

  3. I adore the fragrance of lemon verbena. It will grow here in frost-protected spots but is another plant that will have to wait until I’m staying put for a while. I might have to but in some lemon balm this coming spring though!

    1. There’s no chance of lemon verbena surviving the winters here, and it doesn’t winter indoors very happily, so I tend to treat it as an annual. Maybe it doesn’t even belong in a sustainable landscape, but I expect to bend the rules for a handful of favourite plants.

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