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2004 MHS Herb of the Year -
Lemon Herbs

Those Lovely Lemon Herbs
Lemon Herbs Cookbook By Debbie Cravens

For the 2004 Madison Herb Society Herb of the Year, we’re revisiting Lemon Herbs. There are many and they come from a variety of herb families. Here is
a partial list of these wonderful herbs.

  • Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora)
  • Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
  • Lemon Basil (Ocimum basilicum – several cultivars)
  • Lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus and C. citratus)
  • Lemon Monarda (Monarda citriodora)
  • Lemon Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus – several cultivars)
  • Lemon Scented Geraniums (Pelargonium – many cultivars)
  • Lemon Mint (Mentha x piperita var. citrata)
  • Lemon Savory (Satureja biflora)
  • Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
  • Marigold ‘Lemon Gem’ (Tagetes tenuifolia)

Consider growing some in your herb garden, and don’t hesitate to discover other lemon herbs not listed here.

Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora)
My all-time favorite lemon herb is Lemon verbena. Lemon verbena is a tender perennial, a native of Argentina and Chile where it may grow up to 20 feet. Lemon verbena is the best of the herbal lemons – it’s narrow, pointed, rough-textured green leaves are exquisitely redolent of lemons. Panicles of tiny, white, star-like flowers appear on lemon verbena in the summer. These flowers seldom set seed, so the best way to propagate the plant is by taking cuttings in July and August. Put 4-inch stem cuttings in a sterile soil substitute after dipping them in a rooting hormone. After rooting, it doesn’t make much growth in winter.

This herb thrives in hot, dry weather in well-drained soil. In Wisconsin, you can expect it to grow 3 to 5 feet. Plant it outside when all chance of frost has past. Most gardeners plant lemon verbena in a large pot so it is easier to bring inside for the winter.

If you bring your lemon verbena plant into the house in the fall you should cut it back, pot it up (if it is not already in a pot) and move it to a sunny window for a while. It may drop all of its leaves (make sure to save every leaf) and sulk through the winter. The best thing to do is to put it in a cool (60-degree) low-light situation – keeping it very dry but not totally dried out – and wait for spring. It will look pretty sad, with no leaves or only a few pale ones, but in March, begin to water it and give it warmth and light. Once outside again, either in its pot or planted in the garden it will sprout new leaves and once again perfume the garden.

Lemon verbena is often susceptible to spider mites and whiteflies. Don’t plant it in a yellow pot, which attracts whiteflies.

Harvesting and Using Lemon Verbena

The woody branches of lemon verbena will get leggy, so keep them pruned by continually snipping sprigs. The leaves dry very quickly. Fresh leaves are tough, so be sure to remove them from foods before serving. You can add the dried, finely crumbled leaves to cake or quick bread batter. Lemon verbena is great in tea blends, liqueurs, and other beverages. It may also be used in a potpourri blend.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
If lemon verbena is not the easiest herb to grow, then maybe lemon balm is! A member of the mint family, this is perhaps the best-known lemon herb. This hardy perennial has pebbly, slightly hairy green leaves and grows easily in sun or shade once established. It likes average, well-drained soil, not exceedingly rich. The 2-foot-long stems tend to sprawl, but the plants are not as invasive as the rest of the mint family. You can plant out well-rooted specimens as soon as the soil can be worked. A variegated form ‘Aurea’ is available to add a little pizzazz to your garden. A bronze discoloring of lemon balm’s leaves results from too much heat or too much water. Lemon balm is easy to propagate from seed, layerings or cuttings.

Sometimes detrimental insects seek lemon balm’s tender leaves. Spider mites attack (as they don lemon verbena) during hot, dry summers, and aphids sometimes are pests. Both may be discouraged by frequent hard sprayings from the hose, or by insecticidal soap, if necessary.

Harvesting and Using Lemon Balm
Like most herbs, lemon balm should be harvested for use before it flowers for optimum flavor and fragrance. Pick leaves to use fresh at any time during the growing season. To harvest for drying, cut off the entire plant 2 inches above the ground. Try to avoid bruising the foliage – it has a tendency to turn black unless it is dried quickly. Place the leaves on a wire rack in a very warm, dark and dry place until dry. Do not tie in bunches to dry.

Lemon balm is a versatile culinary and tea herb. The leaves of this vigorous and easy-to-grow herb make a refreshing tisane known as Melissa tea. The tea can be served hot with honey or cold with ice cubes.

Alternatively, a sprig of lemon balm may also be added to a pot of Earl Grey or Ceylon tea. Use it to give custards and ice cream a delicate lemon flavor by steeping the herb in hot cream or milk, then using the flavored liquid in the recipe. Small, tender leaves are delicious added to a green salad, or chopped in chilled summer soups and hot vegetable dishes.

Medicinally, lemon balm has a history – from Nicholas Culpeper’s famous quote in his 17th century herbal, lemon balm “…causeth the mind and heart to become merry, …and driveth away all troublesome cares and thoughts out of the mind, arising from melancholy and black choler…” to today’s use of lemon balm essential oil in external aromatherapy applications to treat anxiety, insomnia, depression and menstrual complaints. Lemon balm oil is also a great remedy for stress-related skin and facial blemishes as well. There are even recipes for making lemon balm furniture polish. So, cause your mind and heart to become merry and plant some Lemon Balm in your garden this year!

Lemon Varieties of Commonly Known Herbs
Many of the lemon herbs we know are variants of herbs we already know how to grow and harvest. The only difference is these have a lemon flavor.

Following is a list of lemon herbs you will want to add to your collection:

Lemon Basil (Ocimum basilicum var.‘Citriodorum’)
Lemon Basil, like other basil varieties, is in the mint family. It is an annual that needs to be planted in full sun in well-drained rich soil. Start seeds indoors or plant small plants outside when all danger of frost is past. Basil plants are very susceptible to cold and lack of water. These plants have a lanky habit and don’t seem as sturdy as the usual basil plant. Some cultivars are ‘Mrs. Burns,’ which grows to 3 feet and has pink flowers and a more robust growth habit than the standard lemon basil and Sweet Dani, which was an All-American Winner in 1998, grows to 2 feet and has an improved lemon scent and high essential oil content.

Whichever cultivar you grow, the combination of lemon and basil flavors is a winner for culinary uses. It makes a wonderful pesto replacing the pine nuts with almonds.

Lemon Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus)
Lemon Thyme is a fragrant and delicious species of thyme that comes in many different cultivars, shapes and sizes. Some varieties have green, golden, or silver hues. Some are upright and some creep. Lemon Thyme is one of the hardiest thymes for Wisconsin. Plant new plants or propagate by divisions or layering. Thyme plants need very well-drained soil and prefer full sun.

Use lemon thymes anywhere you would use regular thyme, especially to boost the lemon-flavor of foods.

Lemon Gem Marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia)
Lemon Gem Marigold is said to have a pungent lemon flavor and aroma. This annual is a small, showy, single-flowered marigold and even if you don’t think it has a lemon flavor, it is an excellent addition to any herb garden for its cheery color and bushy habit. It has a 1 x 1-foot spread. The plant is completely covered with small, single flowers and has finely cut fernlike leaves.

Another plant that likes full sun, it is very easy to grow from seed started indoors or in the garden. It is a useful edging plant in the front of the border and will bloom until hit by a heavy frost. The flower is edible. Mix petals in salads or float in teas for a decorative effect.

Less Familiar Lemon Herbs
Our final section on Lemon Herbs includes herbs of which you may not be familiar and familiar herbs whose lemon varieties you may not have ever grown.

Lemon-Scented Geraniums (Pelargonium)
These plants are in a different family from true geraniums, but everyone calls them scented geraniums.

They are native to South Africa, where there are over 600 species growing wild. Scented geraniums are not frost hardy. North of Zone 9, they are usually grown as annuals or houseplants. They are a family of much loved plants grown for the scent in their leaves, not for the usually insignificant flowers. The simple flowers have five petals, four to ten flowers per stem.

These plants are easy to grow from cuttings and readily set seed and cross-pollinate. Grow them as annuals or as house plants with lots of sun and provide good air circulation and excellent drainage. Beware of whitefly.

Using Lemon-Scented Geranium
Lemon geranium leaves are used most frequently in desserts, jellies, or other sweet dishes like fruit salads, and teas. Because of the decorative shape of the leaves, they are sometimes embedded in the surface of cakes and cookies both to impart flavor and for decoration. The leaves also make a great addition to potpourris.

In Becker and Brawner’s book, "Scented Geraniums: Knowing, Growing, and Enjoying Scented Pelargoniums," they list close to 20 varieties of citrus-scented geraniums. Mabel Grey (P. citronellum) being the most familiar with several hybrids. Other varieties are P. crispum, also called ‘Finger Bowl’ geranium, Prince Rupert and P. mellissinum ‘Lemon Balm.’

Lemon Mint (Mentha x piperita var. citrata)
Is described as an aggressive and invasive mint. Although that means I’ve crossed it off my ‘to grow’ list, it is said to make an excellent ground cover. This plant has insignificant lavender flowers, pale green leaves and grows from 1-2 feet tall.

As with most mints, lemon mint is obviously easy to grow and propagate. Propagate by divisions or cuttings and plant in part or full sun.
The combination of lemon and mint flavors makes it a natural for tea or with fish, chicken, or lamb.

Freeze sprigs of lemon mint in ice cube trays with water and use the cubes to flavor cool summer drinks.

Mentha ‘Hillary’s Sweet Lemon,’ named for Hillary Clinton, has lavender flower spikes.

French Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
I have a beautiful form of this herb growing in my herb garden purchased on a summer MHS road trip.

Its leaves are dark green, streaked with red. Though edible, it’s so pretty, I haven’t been able to bring myself to eat any. The regular form of French sorrel is a bright green. This is a hardy perennial with a sprightly lemon flavor. Sow seeds in spring in full sun or light shade in a sheltered spot in rich, moist soil. Thin seedlings and divide roots in the fall. Divide and replant every 5 years.

Sorrel is primarily grown for use in the kitchen. To help keep it from becoming weedy, remove the flower stalks before they form seeds. Use young sorrel leaves in salads, cooked like spinach, or in soup.

Lemon Savory (Satureja biflora)
Lemon Savory is a tender perennial. It has small white or lavender flowers. Grow this herb in full sun, in average well-drained soil. Its strong lemon flavor and scent are used in cooking and in teas. Savory generally has a spicy smell and a spicy-pepper taste and, as the name implies, is used in savory dishes.

Lemon Monarda (Monarda citriodora)
This charming plant has lavender flowers growing in whorls up a bare, square stem. This plant is sometimes called lemon mint, but don’t confuse it with the Lemon Mint mentioned earlier. Lemon monarda is native to the Southwest.

This plant is easy to start from seed either indoors or out. Plant this annual in full sun. Lemon monarda can use some moisture and partial shade and can withstand high dry heat, but needs good circulation to prevent powdery mildew. Use the young monarda leaves in teas and to flavor salads and stuffings.

Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus)
Lemon Grass is a tropical lemon herb that is gaining popularity in this country, along with the Southeast Asian cuisine in which it is used. Tufts of green, spear-shaped leaves are 3 feet long. This tender perennial has to be wintered indoors in northern climates. It is used frequently in tea, Asian and potpourri recipes.

Lemon Catnip (Catmint) (Nepeta cataria ‘Citriodora’)
Lemon Catnip is a variety of the common catnip that grows throughout my yard. As easy to grow as any other mint, this perennial has green-gray downy foliage and grows to 2 feet tall in full sun or partial shade. The flowers have lavender spots. Although I enjoy drinking catnip tea, I think that Lemon Catnip tea is even better and your cats may enjoy it too, but for other reasons!

There are likely other lemon herbs available that we haven’t explored here, so be adventurous in your garden and try new varieties each spring.