Lemon Herbs Add Zest

By Vicki Blachman

Contributing Writer

“It’s a lemon!” Funny how a phrase used to curse a malfunction could also describe some of the herb gardener’s most treasured plants. With uncanny mimicry, a wide variety of herbs begs to be identified with the bright, refreshing scents we associate with citrus even though each lemon-, lime-, grapefruit- or orange-scented herb has a fragrance unlike all the others.

Of the herbs with citrusy monikers, lemon scents are the most readily identified. Rarely do you stick your nose into a clump of “orange” thyme or “grapefruit” mint and get such a clear signal. And although lemon flavor requires certain compounds be present, by comparison, lemon scent may be suggested by widely varying compounds or chemicals from plant to plant. No single component is required for our brains to get the message that this scent is somehow lemon-related. The presence or lack of citral, limonene, geraniol, citronellal and various terpenes (just to name a few) may change the scent from floral to fruity to downright funky by their presence in differing ratios and combinations. Thank goodness chemistry blends in our favor so much of the time.

The good news is that we don’t need to know their chemistry to enjoy these useful plants. Let your senses guide you to your own favorites and their use. Scattered throughout the garden or collected into one bed, these herbs offer infinite variety on the lemon theme.

Herb enthusiasts often design their gardens around collections of plants used for dyes, teas or potpourris, as well as spa or medicinal herbs, moon gardens made up of silver-leafed herbs, or a variety of culinary themes. With lemon scents showing up in so many herb families, they’re also a natural group. And for gardeners with limited space, a lemon-scented garden might just offer the best return for your effort as it produces a harvest useful in creating teas, potpourri and flavors essential to various cuisines. As an added bonus, some of the most popular members of the group are also relatively tolerant of light shade. Add a bit more sun exposure and very little more space, and you can even include some true citrus plants in large containers.

Each of the following herbs will do well in a raised bed or a container more than 12 inches in diameter. The soil should be well-draining and high in organic matter such as well-aged compost. As with most herbs, fertilizer is not needed or even desired as it can produce lush growth with less flavor and scent. However, throughout the year I actually “mulch” in between my herb plants with additional compost to replenish the organic material that breaks down so quickly in the Texas heat, and I will occasionally spray the foliage with an aerobic compost tea for good measure.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), also called “Sweet Melissa,” is a member of the mint family native to southern Europe. Since the Middle Ages, it has traditionally been used for its soothing or calming effect. It was even cultivated by Thomas Jefferson. “Melissa” is derived from the Greek word for bee, presumably because its small flowers attract bees in noticeably large numbers. Keeping lemon balm pinched back keeps the plant healthier by producing more fresh growth. These younger, tender leaves are also better for cooking and tisanes as older leaves develop a harsher, somewhat soapy flavor. Lemon balm grows well in light to moderate shade and has minimal water requirements once established.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora) is said to have the truest lemon scent of the lemon herbs, and if I could only grow one, this would probably be it. I dare say most herb gardeners would agree. Margaret Mitchell mentions it in Gone with the Wind as the fragrance Scarlett associated with her mother, Ellen, but even without such celebrity backing, lemon verbena is famous for its powerful scent. It grows in full sun or dappled shade, typically losing all of its leaves or even freezing to the ground in winter but recovering in the spring. In late fall, I harvest the majority of the leaves and layer them in a glass jar with gunpowder tea and organic rose petals. The tea absorbs the essential oils from the lemon verbena, and the resulting tea makes a well-received hostess or holiday gift. Fresh lemon verbena leaves are delicious added to a pitcher of ice water or your favorite sangria. They’re also an essential ingredient in lemon-scented potpourri and sachets. Below, I’ve given tips for cooking with this and other herbs that have somewhat coarser, fibrous leaves.

Lemon grass, of the genus Cymbopogon, is unique among grasses for its scented leaves. In India it is said to repel tigers, but Texans grow it simply for its delicious scent and flavor. Of the types more readily found today, the thicker, more succulent cores of the basal stems of Cymbopogon citrates (West Indian lemongrass) are favored for culinary use. This strongly scented herb also packs a strong lemon flavor, used to great advantage when paired with fresh lime juice and kefir lime leaves in a fiery Thai soup called tom yam

East Indian lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) has in the past few years begun to dominate the nursery trade in Texas, but its slender stems reduce useable parts primarily to tough leaves, not as easily used for cooking but perfect for potpourris and tisanes. Interestingly, lemongrass oil is used to adulterate lemon oil and to make an artificial violet perfume. This herb will grow very well in light or dappled shade, but in full sun it may reach a height of six feet and width up to three! This is definitely one for the back of the herb bed. In most of Texas, it will survive winter temperatures. Try trimming it back and mulch the crown heavily. After all but the coldest winters, it should return the following spring. In North Texas, you may prefer to pot up a division of the crown and keep it in a protected area or indoors until spring to ensure its return.

Lemon basil (Ocimum basilicum var. citriodorum, O. americanum). We now have access to many delicious lemony basil cultivars, my favorite of which is ‘Mrs. Burns.’ It has a wonderful flavor, has exhibited no disease problems and its tiny white flowers attract bees by the score. If you prefer less of the anise undertones common to most basil, try ‘Sweet Dani.’ Grow all basils in full sun to dappled shade once low temperatures are consistently above 50 F. Rather than pinching back to discourage blooms, each month cut the entire plant back to just above the second set of lowest leaves. When plants are looking healthy and barely starting to bloom, I find this extremely difficult. But you’ll be rewarded with a fuller, longer growing plant if you can summon your courage and follow this practice. Substitute lemon basils for sweet basil in your favorite pesto or any other basil recipe, and prepare to love the result.

Lemon-scented geraniums (Pelargonium crispum, P. citrosa, and others). These natives of South Africa are well suited to container gardening, allowing them to be moved to a protected spot to overwinter. Essential oils from these delightful plants have been heavily used by the perfume industry in the past, but many are equally suited to culinary applications. A traditional use is to line a baking tin for pound cakes with the fresh leaves before pouring in the batter. I like to make an infusion to carry the scent into fruit salads and desserts, as well as place a whole fresh leaf between the saucer and a hot cup of tea. Incorporate the fragrant leaves into bouquets of cut flowers or your favorite potpourri for a clean, refreshing fragrance throughout your home.

Lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus). Did I imply lemon verbena was my favorite? Well, lemon thyme would be awfully difficult to give up. Although thyme can be challenging to grow in the heat of a Texas summer, adequate light, well-draining soil rich in organic matter and regular pruning of lemon thyme can result in a lemon-scented cushion of sensory perfection. Plant it near the edge of the bed and gently soak the root zone on a regular basis rather than hitting it with a blast of water from above. Use it wherever fresh thyme is called for or, for a change, toss whole leaves into a fresh salad of greens or mixed summer melon.

Use and Enjoyment: To use lemon basil or lemon thyme, simply add their tender leaves to a favorite recipe. For the others, I often employ an infusion due to their coarse or fuzzy leaves. Although the scents and flavors are delightful, lemon verbena, lemon balm, lemon geraniums and lemongrass can all be a bit unpleasant in your mouth even when finely chopped. Instead of adding them directly to your food, transfer their essential oils and flavors to a liquid — whether it’s one called for in your recipe or simply a small amount of stock, juice or milk. Heat the liquid gently, remove from heat and steep the herbs in the liquid until it’s well scented and flavored. For fruit salads or beverages, you can steep herbs in apple juice concentrate to both flavor and sweeten foods. Cooking with lemongrass? Slightly pound or bruise the light-colored lower portion of the stem base and steep in chicken or vegetable broth. A simple syrup made by boiling together 2 cups granulated sugar with 1 cup water until the sugar is dissolved is another liquid to use for capturing the flavor of lemon herbs. Simple syrups can be brushed onto cake layers to add flavor and moisture or used to sweeten and flavor beverages or tart fruits. As in making tea, with infusions you simply remove the herbs after steeping and use the flavored liquid.

Lemon-scented herbs are grown for their leaves rather than showy flowers, so plants that bloom in lemon yellow or golden shades are often included to underscore the sunny theme. Calylophus drummondianus var. berlandieri, sometimes called Texas primrose or sundrops, has a loose, low-growing habit that easily entertwines with the denser growing herbs in my lemon garden without crowding. The delicate buttercup-yellow flowers only last one day, but additional blooms are easily encouraged by deadheading the spent flowers, pinching back regularly, and watering when dry. ‘Stella d’Oro’ daylilies are also small enough to provide color without taking up much real estate in the smaller garden.

Visitors to my garden always seem drawn to the lemon herbs, where they’re encouraged to pinch, rub and sniff a leaf from each plant. Why not add that zest to your garden, too? This simple collection of six herbs will provide an abundance of lemon-scented variety for your kitchen and crafts. It’s one “lemon” that promises never to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

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