The Zesty, Sweet Scent of Lemon Verbena

A tender favorite that’s worth a little extra effort.

| April/May 2003


  • The leaves of lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) are a cheery light green and if the plant is tightly groomed, it can serve as a neat bush.
    Steven Foster
  • The fragrant tea of this South American native is said to have gentle sedative effects.
    Steven Foster

Plants grown outside their native territories often need special care, and the South American native lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is an excellent example. North American home gardeners who try to grow this tender, wonderfully fragrant perennial herb may succeed more often than they fail, but a large number who try year after year eventually develop a deep sense of frustration and guilt when they repeatedly “commit herbicide.”

Although our research doesn’t claim to have solved the mystery or to offer a sure-fire formula for success, it has uncovered a few misconceptions about the plant and a lot of solid advice. Those who have succeeded with lemon verbena agree that the plant is worth a bit of effort, and we hope that discouraged verbenaphiles will give it another try, armed with solid information and a positive outlook.

Profile of the victim

Lemon verbena is one of more than 30 species of aromatic shrubs in the genus Aloysia (family Verbenaceae), all native to the warmer parts of North and South America. Its botanical name has undergone a cycle of change in the two centuries since it was introduced to England as Verbena triphylla. Its lemon scent was the source of an alternative name, V. citriodora (verveine citronelle in France). A Spanish researcher assigned it to the genus Aloysia (named for Maria Louisa, wife of King Charles IV of Spain) because its fruit separates into two nutlets, whereas the fruits of Verbena species separate into four. The plant was known as A. citriodora until it was moved again in the early nineteenth century, this time to the genus Lippia (named for Lippi, an Italian botanist). Though lemon verbena is sometimes still offered as L. citriodora, it has long been reassigned to the genus Aloysia, this time as A. triphylla. The species name describes the characteristic whorls of three leaves that form along the stems. Occasionally, however, the whorls consist of four leaves, sometimes on the entire plant and sometimes just on certain stems.

Lemon verbena grows best in loose, well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter, and drainage is the more important of those two characteristics. Neither clay nor very acidic soils are hospitable to lemon verbena; a lot of sand and a little lime, respectively, seem to be the best remedies. Though moisture-retentive soil is often recommended, lemon verbena will rot if its roots are constantly wet.



Given adequate drainage, lemon verbena can tolerate a wide range of watering regimes. To err on the dry side seems to be most advisable, but observation and familiarity are the best tools for determining water needs. If you live in a climate colder than Zone 9 and plan to winter your lemon verbena outdoors, you should withhold water as freezing weather approaches so the plant can harden off and so the roots will not be wet when they freeze. The plant will need little to no water while it is dormant, whether it’s kept indoors or out.

Fertilize lemon verbena as you would any other herb plant: as often as every two weeks indoors or every four weeks in the garden when the plant is growing vigorously, less during periods of slower growth and not at all during dormancy. In spring, following winter dormancy, some gardeners apply fish emulsion or other fertilizer to encourage growth to begin, but others question whether it’s the fertilizer or just the water that stimulates the process.



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