Most people think of the citrus groves when they smell lemon but that’s not the only source we have. The herb garden can also provide the touch of lemon. Here are four lemon scented herbs you can grow and enjoy in your foods, your home, and your life.
First on our list is lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), a hardy perennial to Zone 5. This bushy herb can grow to three feet high in ideal conditions, although it usually only reaches two feet in my North Texas garden. The slightly fuzzy leaves are bright green and about two inches long with toothed edges. Lemon balm will grow just fine in poor or rocky soils provided it gets regular watering. It’s not a drought tolerant herb.
Plant it where the fragrant drifts of bright green can highlight blooming annuals. In late summer this herb will be topped with short flower stalks sporting tiny white to pale yellow flowers. Prune or harvest lemon balm about two times during the gardening year to prevent it from sprawling onto its neighbors.
If you like a touch of lemon in your herbal tea then lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora) is for you. It is a shrubby herb with long pointed leaves. The stems are light green in spring but develop a khaki colored bark by mid-summer. It produces sprays of tiny lavender to white flowers in spring or fall, depending on how cold your climate is.
Lemon verbena grows to ten feet in its native South America but I have rarely seen it taller than three feet in Texas. It is hardy to Zone 8 but during frosty winter weather it will lose all its leaves, the remaining branches will look downright scraggly, and you’ll wonder if you’ve lost the plant. Just clip the stems down to the ground and be patient. Once spring comes and daytime temperatures move back into the 60’s, you’ll see new leaves appearing at the base.
Lemon verbena can be a little awkward looking in the garden. Left to itself it creates a rather haphazard shape. Prune and harvest the leaves a couple of times during the growing season to keep it shaped nicely. If you grow your lemon verbena in a pot, try clipping it into a standard topiary shape.
If you enjoy cooking Thai or Chinese food you’ll want to grow lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus). It grows in clumps of tightly wrapped leaves with a bulbous base. The inner core is pale green and tender, somewhat resembling the lower part of a green onion. Lemongrass generally grows about 3 feet high, although it may grow to 6 feet in ideal conditions.
Because it is native to the tropics of Southeast Asia, lemongrass is hardy only in Zones 10 and 11, but it will survive mild winters with brief frosts. If your area gets hard frosts in the winter, grow it in a large container that can be brought in for the winter.
Take my advice and always use gloves when handling lemongrass. The light green, strap-shaped leaves are finely serrated and can cut you before you know it. Lemongrass has also been known in rare cases to cause contact dermatitis (itching or reddening of the skin, and even blisters), another good reason for those gloves.
Lemongrass needs little care and is rarely attacked by insects. Because it is a shallow-rooted grass native to a wet climate, it needs regular watering. If you live in a hot, dry region (like my Texas garden) keep it where it will get shade.
If you enjoy grilling or roasting meats will definitely want to have fresh lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus) on hand. This spreading sub-shrub reaches a foot tall with tiny light green egg-shaped leaves. Lemon thyme has one of the best flavors of the thyme family for cooking, surpassing even common thyme in some opinions. I think it’s also one of the most beautiful and fragrant in the garden.
Lemon thyme is happiest with lots of sunshine and well-drained, almost gravelly, soil. If planted in a too-wet area the roots may rot. It needs regular watering during its first year but can withstand drought conditions once established. Regular pruning in spring and fall maintains the plant’s health as it reduces the amount of less productive old wood.
Lemon Herbs in the Kitchen
All four of these lemon-scented herbs can be used in foods, beverages, potpourris, and other scented crafts. Here’s a quick list of suggestions on how to use them:
- Like all thymes, lemon thyme can be easily added to rice by adding a spring to the cooking water.
- Lemon verbena is often used all by itself in France as an after-dinner herbal tea or tisane. You might try adding a few leaves to your cup as you are brewing hot tea with a teabag.
- Lemongrass is frequently used in Southeast Asian foods. Add some inner tender slices of lemongrass next time you make egg drop soup.
- In summer, I love the flavor of lemon balm lemonade. Click here for the recipe I posted last summer.
- All of these lemon scented herbs will work well in seasoning mixes for fish or poultry. Give it a try!
Adding lemongrass, lemon balm, lemon verbena, and lemon thyme to your spring garden will provide a steady supply of their lemony goodness all year long.