Lemon Verbena

“What’s your favorite herb?”  I get this question all the time, what is the herb growers favorite herb?  It’s not really a fair question, since it depends on my mood and what I’m eating or drinking and what season it is and so many other factors, but I actually do have a favorite herb that I would take to a desert island and would be the one plant I would take to Mars with me and that I can’t live without.  That plant is lemon verbena, and I would stuff my bed full of lemon verbena leaves and sleep on it if I could get away with it.  Since that might be a little too much for my husband and the plethora of cats and Dexter the dog that share my sleeping space, I opt for dried lemon verbena leaves crushed into a dream pillow along with rose petals, chamomile and lavender.

Oddly, this year lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) has been one of our more difficult herbs to propagate and grow at the farm, so for the first 5 ½ months of 2023 I had to qualify my favorite herb statement with ‘I don’t have any to sell and neither does anyone else in the country’.  Lemon verbena, which only roots well from tip cuttings taken from moderately growing plants in bright, warm (not hot, dry or sunless, rainy) conditions completely croaked in the late winter and early spring wet conditions of our greenhouses.  We called the few other growers who also sometimes provided us with cuttings, but sadly everyone else suffered the same losses.  We gardeners are a patient bunch though, so we waited until finally our stock plants in the garden decided spring had arrived and leafed out so we could take cuttings.  And now at Morningsun Herb Farm we literally have hundreds of lemon verbena plants ready for sale!  And now my favorite herb plant is ready to be planted into your garden.

If you have lemon verbena in your garden already, you understand its allure.  Even if its only use is to be planted next to your chair where you sit to relax in the garden and take in its amazing fragrance, that is all you need – it’s the ultimate aromatherapy.

Lemon verbena is a New World plant, native to Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.  Once discovered, it quickly became a very popular herb in the Spanish court and was named Aloysia after the Spanish Queen Louisa.  In a tropical setting, the plant can easily grow to 15 feet, but will typically grow to just 6 feet in Zone 8-10, and can be maintained smaller in a container.  Although it is considered a bit tender, it is actually a fairly sturdy and drought hardy plant once it is established.  With deep watering it can be maintained on a once a week watering schedule, and if the roots are protected during heavier freezes plants can be maintained for many years.  Plants go dormant during the winter and branches should be pruned back early in the spring.  Often it will not leaf out until the middle of April, particularly in a cool, wet spring.  It produces small white blooms that rarely set seed, so you will probably never find seed for sale, nor will you find random lemon verbena seedlings in your garden. 

Plant lemon verbena in a sunny space for best growth, adding compost to your soil to increase drainage and organic matter in the soil.  Lemon verbena can be a fairly drought tolerant plant once established if it is given deep, infrequent watering when it is small.  Lemon verbena is also very adaptable, and can be planted in partial sun, in raised beds, or in containers.  If possible, plant in at least a sixteen inch pot.  Pinch the tips frequently to keep the plant bushy.  In all but the most temperate climates, the leaves of lemon verbena will drop when temperatures drop below 45 degrees, usually in mid November.   Prune the plant back in early spring as you would a rose bush, to just a foot or so from the ground, and just above a leaf node.  In colder climates, plant close to a wall or pull the container under an overhang or into a garage to protect it from heavy freeze.

Lemon verbena is my favorite tea plant.  It makes a delicious and wonderful hot and iced tea, both refreshing and cooling, as well as a good digestive and a gentle tea for relaxation.  Lemon verbena has been known to be high in antioxidants, aiding in the reduction of inflammation of swollen joints.  This makes it useful as both an internal tea and an important bath herb.  Lemon verbena can also aid in breaking up congestion and reducing a fever.  It is a great flavor enhancer, and is always a good choice when trying to make an unpalatable medicinal concoction more appetizing.

Lemon verbena is also one of those herbs that gets our creative culinary juices going.  How can we use that leaf with the tough little center rib in our cooking?  Lemon verbena bitters, lemon verbena infused vodka, lemon verbena simple syrup to use anywhere you use simple syrup, butter, honey, ice cream, desserts, stuffed into chicken, baked on top of fish and vegetables.  The possibilities are delicious and endless.

Because lemon verbena is an herbaceous perennial, you will need to harvest the leaves during the season and dry them so you will have plenty to use for tea and cooking during the cold winter.    Prune back and rubber band small bunches during the growing season, hanging in a dark location with good air flow and dry for 5 days or more until the leaves and stems are dry.  Leaves can be stored in glass jars for 1 year, or in plastic containers for 6 months. 

Be sure to harvest plenty of lemon verbena to use fresh all summer long, infuse plenty in vinegar, honey, syrup and vodka and dry plenty so you don’t have to miss it in the winter months!