Lemony Fresh

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.

| June/July 2005

  • Rick Wetherbee

  • Rick Wetherbee
  • Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla)
    Rick Wetherbee
  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
    Rick Wetherbee
  • Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus)
    Rick Wetherbee

  • Rick Wetherbee
  • Lemon balm almond muffins
    Rick Wetherbee
  • Lemon thyme frittata
    Rick Wetherbee
  • Apple fig salad with lemon verbena riesling dressing
    Rick Wetherbee

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.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla)

Description: A deciduous woody shrub or bushy, tender perennial with narrow, rough-textured leaves and starlike pale purple to white flowers that evoke an ethereal feel in summer. Grows 3 to 5 feet tall in cooler climates or 10 to 15 feet in frost-free regions of the South. The graceful shrub is striking as a specimen plant in the border or kitchen garden or grown in containers. USDA Zone 8.

Growing conditions: Prefers fairly rich and moderately moist soil in full sun. The roots often remain hardy down to 20 degrees — sometimes lower — if heavily mulched and grown in a protected area. Where winters are cold, grow the plant in a large pot and bring indoors for winter.

Tasty traits: A lemon lover’s delight with the most intense lemon flavor of all these herbs. Add chopped leaves to fruit salad, mix into muffin batter or soft cheeses, or use to season stir-fry or vegetables dishes. Leaves also brighten the taste of poultry or fish and add enticing lemon zing to your favorite tea or beverage. Or try adding it to salad dressing.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus)

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.



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