Lemon verbena’s attractive leaves and pleasant scent have made it a favorite garden plant since Victorian times, when it was known as the “lemon plant.” Native to South America, this tall, deciduous shrub bears small white to pale purple flowers and long, finely toothed yellow-green leaves that have a sweet, lemony fragrance and flavor. Its flavor is the most intense of all of the lemony herbs, including lemon balm, lemongrass, and lemon thyme.
Common Names: Lemon Verbena, Verbena
Description: Deciduous shrub, up to 6 feet tall; spikes of small white to pale purple flowers; long, finely toothed yellow-green leaves; highly aromatic
Hardiness: To Zone 8
Flowering: December to January
Parts Used: Leaves
Range/Habitat: Native to Chile and Argentina
Lemon verbena adds bright, lemony flavor to a variety of foods including preserves, marinades, seafood, poultry, salads, dressings, desserts, and wine. To give recipes a lemony lift, combine 7 to 10 leaves with a bit of water in a blender, and substitute the puree for some of the liquid in your recipe. Lemon verbena also makes a delicious hot or cold tea, and it has been used to flavor liqueurs in its native South America.
Traditionally used as a treatment for settling the stomach, lemon verbena contains a volatile oil (mainly consisting of citral, cineole, limonene, and geraniol) that benefits digestion. A tea of lemon verbena leaves or flowering tops can be used to relieve digestive upset, reduce fever, and improve lethargy. The plant contains flavonoids and iridoids, which give it antispasmodic, sedative, and fever-reducing effects.
Caution: Lemon verbena can cause contact dermatitis in some people.
Commercially, the oil is extracted to make cologne and soap. At home, use aromatic lemon verbena leaves in potpourris, sachets, and cut flower arrangements, or make a simple infusion to scent bathwater.
How to grow it
Lemon verbena does best in light, well-drained soil in full sun. It can survive winters in areas where the ground does not freeze; in colder areas, grow it in a pot in a cool sunroom or unheated greenhouse during winter. Pinch back the plant tips to encourage bushy growth. If the plant is very large by fall, cut it back by half before bringing it indoors for winter. (Use the leaves!) Remember that lemon verbena is deciduous, so don’t be concerned when it loses leaves in fall. Harvest the leaves in summer, when growth is lush. Dry them on a screen and store them in a jar in a cool, dark location. Start new plants from cuttings taken in summer.