With their tart, citrus fragrance, lemon-scented herbs enliven our gardens and our cuisine. Here are some pointers on how to grow and make the most of these lemon favorites.
If a fragrance is judged by its popularity, then the citrus essence of lemon wins first in its class. Yet as anyone who likes to cook or eat tasty foods can attest, there’s more to lemon’s delight than mere fragrance. Like everybody’s favorite extrovert, lemon can bring out the best in practically any food.
But the pretty yellow fruits aren't the only source for that fresh taste and aroma; a whole world of flavor is available in lemon-scented herbs. These aromatic herbs excite the senses with exotic lemon fragrance and fabulous flavor. Lemon verbena, lemongrass, lemon balm, lemon basil and lemon thyme sizzle in stir-fries, brighten casseroles, mediate marinades, add zest to beverages, and enhance the flavor of baked good and desserts. And this medley for lemon lovers delivers enticing lemon flavor without the sour bite that lemons from a tree sometimes add.
Lemon fragrance and flavor aren’t the only attributes these herbs have in common. With the exception of lemon thyme, which prefers light, dry soil, most of these herbs grow best in fairly rich, well-drained soil that’s kept moderately moist. Most benefit from an occasional to frequent pruning of branch tips to encourage more leaf production — in other words, when you snip off fresh sprigs, you’re not only indulging yourself, you’re doing the plant a favor.
And although they share their lemony appellation, each has its own set of characteristics that makes it unique from garden to table.
Need help in deciding which lemon herbs to grow? Here’s an introduction to five of the most popular varieties. Two others worth a mention include lemon-scented geraniums (Pelargonium crispum) and lemon mint (Mentha xpiperita ‘Citrata’). But don’t stop at one: Grow them all and discover your personal favorites.
Description: Densely tufted grass forms clumps of lime green to bluish-green leaves somewhat coarse in texture. This 3- to 5-foot tender perennial looks great in containers—either outdoors or as a year-round houseplant—or can be used to frame path edges or mixed in the border for architectural impact. USDA Zone 9.
Growing conditions: Best grown in full sun and rich, well-drained soil with ample moisture during the growing season. In climates where temperatures fall below 25 degrees, it can be grown as an annual or wintered indoors as a potted plant or a potted division. Begin harvesting stems when about 1/2-inch thick.
Tasty traits: A standard in Asian cooking with lively lemon flavor and a refreshing bite of ginger. Prepare leaves as you would leeks, stripping off the tough outer leaves and chopping the inner stalks and tender leaves. Makes a wonderful seasoning for stir-fries, curries and other Asian dishes. Add to homemade salsas and marinades, season pork and poultry dishes, or use to spice up your favorite lemonade. The tougher outer leaves can be chopped and brewed with tea.
Description: Hardy perennial growing 2 to 3 feet high with small oval-shaped green leaves and rather unimpressive white flowers in summer. There’s also a more striking variegated form with light green leaves splashed in yellow-gold that pairs beautifully with purple sage or pink dianthus. Use in the front of the border, to frame path edges or mixed in container plantings. USDA Zone 4.
Growing conditions: Grows in average, well-drained moist soil in full sun to partial shade. When it comes to staying put, this mint family member is better behaved than some but does have a tendency to spread in fertile soil. Removing flowers before they set seed will also help keep the plant in bounds.
Tasty traits: Nice lemon flavor and scent with a suggestion of mint. Add chopped leaves to soups, stews, salads and poultry and fish dishes. Steep bruised leaves in sun-brewed beverages, thread with vegetables on kabobs, stuff fish or poultry, or cut a pocket in lamb or pork to stuff with fresh sprigs before grilling. Or try it in muffins.
Description: Spreading, low-mounding or erect sub-shrubs growing 6 to 12 inches high. Depending on the variety, the glossy leaves can be lime- to dark-green, sometimes marbled or splashed with silver, gold or cream. Lavender-pink to white flowers appear in summer. Great as a border plant, ground cover or in a container. USDA Zone
Growing conditions: Thrives in a light sandy to gritty soil that retains moisture, but will tolerate clay soil that has been enriched with organic matter to improve drainage. Grow in full sun to light shade where summers are hot. Prune lightly after flowering to help keep plants compact.
Tasty traits: A lemony thyme fragrance with flavor akin to lemon-pepper seasoning laced with thyme. Strip fresh leaves from stem and sprinkle over grilled fish or chicken, buttered corn on the cob, green beans sautéed with almonds, white bean salad with zucchini and olive oil dressing, or toss with potatoes before roasting. Or try it in frittata.
Description: A tender annual growing 2 to 3 feet high. Stems are soft and leaves are pale green, delicate and petite compared to sweet basil. ‘Sweet Dani’ has a rounded growth habit; ‘Mrs. Burns’ is more robust with larger leaves than the standard lemon basil. Plant in borders, along walkways, in containers, mingled in the kitchen garden, or any location where you can brush against the plant to release its fragrance as you walk by.
Growing conditions: Best in full sun and rich, moderately moist, well-drained soil. Sow seed in spring after danger of frost has past and nights have warmed and soil temperature has reached 50 degrees. As with other varieties of basil, the leaves of lemon basil will turn black when exposed to temperatures below 38 degrees. Prolong leaf production by pinching out flower spikes as they form.
Tasty traits: Combines the heavenly essence of lemon and fresh basil in its leaves. Add fresh leaves to soups and stews before serving or sprinkle over cooked vegetables. Use on pizza, in sandwiches, over cooked pasta dishes or to dress up desserts. Add a touch of lemon intrigue to fish and chicken or infuse its flavor in dressings and marinades. Or use leaves to make an especially tasty lemony pesto.
Makes 1 dozen
Nutty and nutritious, these muffins can be breakfast on the go or a sweet treat for an afternoon snack.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
The hint of lemon in this savory dish brightens all the flavors.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
This fruit salad is impressive enough for Sunday brunch parties and easy enough for summer family meals.
Makes 4 small servings
This decadent dessert has elegant, melt-in-your-mouth flavors.
— Kris Wetherbee is an avid organic gardener who lives and grows an abundance of herbs in Oakland, Oregon, with her husband, photographer Rick Wetherbee, and their family. She wrote the recently released book Attracting Birds, Butterflies & Other Winged Wonders to Your Backyard - with beautiful photos by husband Rick.
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