Lemon verbena is a vigorous, sometimes leggy, tender sub-shrub, often reaching heights of 4’ or more. It displays delicate white to purple flowers. A prominent herb in Victorian culture, women sniffed handkerchiefs stuffed with lemon verbena leaves to get relief from summer heat. Today, its fresh, zesty lemon fragrance is prevalent in soap, lotion, and other body products.
A great herb for tea, beverages, and desserts, Lemon Verbena can also flavor meat dishes. The flavor breaks down at high temperatures, so it is best used fresh or added to a recipe at the end of its preparation. Try infusing cooking oils with the leaves for a gourmet twist, or whip chopped leaves into butter. Leaves can also be used like a vanilla bean pod to flavor sugar.
To make tea, pour boiling water over leaves and steep for at least 5 minutes. Strain and enjoy! Try chilling lemon verbena tea with mint and serve with fresh leaves of both herbs on a summer day. Crushed fresh leaves also add flavor to cola, seltzer, or mixed drinks.
Used as a medicinal herb, lemon verbena is said to ease headaches, calm upset stomachs, and help with insomnia. Be cautious when applying lemon verbena topically, as some individuals demonstrate skin sensitivity. Never ingest prepared essential oils.
To harvest, gather leaves in small amounts throughout the growing season, or cut the plant by up to half to gather large bundles. Harder pruning helps keep the plant bushy. The plant’s oils will be richest in the leaves in the morning, after morning dew evaporates, and right before the plant flowers. Plant in full sun for maximum oil production.
To preserve the herb, dry leaves on screens or hang in bundles upside down in a dark, dry place. You can also freeze leaves whole, in plastic bags, or chop them and freeze them into ice cubes to use in recipes later.
Lemon Verbena is tolerant of Black Walnut trees and air pollution.
Genus and Species: Aloysia citrodora, (syn. Aloysia triphylla)
Origin: South America.
Culture: Plant in rich, well-drained soil, in ground or in larger pots (at least 12” tall & wide), in full sun. Let soil dry slightly between waterings. Apply a balanced organic fertilizer once a month during the spring and summer. Over-fertilizing may cause a decrease in the production of the plant’s aromatic oils.
Maintenance: Lemon verbena is a tender perennial, hardy to about 22°F.
Overwinter inside in a dark, cool basement or garage that doesn’t get above 55°F, or in a well-protected area outside, such as a shed, covered porch, or cold frame. Wait until the leaves have fallen from the plant to move indoors. This should happen after the plant has been consistently exposed to temperatures around 40°F. Water very little during winter dormancy.
Prune in early spring, before new growth emerges. If indoors, re-acclimate the plant to outdoor conditions in spring, when temperatures are starting to warm. Prune regularly during the growing season to keep plant bushy.
Although not reliably cold hardy in Portland, it is possible to overwinter Lemon Verbena in the ground in a sheltered location. Do not cut back the woody twigs on outdoor plants until spring. Mulch well, and use frost blanket over the whole plant for extra insulation during freezes. Make sure to water the plant if a freeze is in the forecast.
Pest and Disease: Lemon Verbena is susceptible to spider mites and whitefly, especially indoors. Regular pruning can aid in pest prevention. Insecticidal soap works well on whiteflies and aphids, and Mite-X is effective against spider mites.