The stunning lemon verbena plant is a richly scented addition to patios and gardens across the country. Its vibrant, green, almond-shaped leaves pop beside the deep hues of peony, rose, and poppy foliage. Paired with bee balm and lavender, lemon verbena creates a bee-haven of fresh scents and nourishing nectar. Read on to learn how to grow this gorgeous plant at home.
Growing Lemon Verbena:
Native to warm, tropical climates, lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) grows as a perennial in frost-free areas. In these temperate zones, your lemon verbena plant can easily grow into a small tree in the garden. It often reaches heights of 6 feet, and has been known to grow up to 15 feet tall. With a garden to stretch out in, lemon verbena tends to bush out, spreading as wide as 8 feet.
Also known as “lemon beebrush”, lemon verbena was originally grown in western South America, where it thrives near roadways and in sunny fields. It caught the eyes of Spanish and Portuguese explorers, who brought it back to Europe. It gained in popularity, and by the 17th century, it was and cultivated across the continent for its fragrant oil.
In snowy, frosty areas, lemon verbena can be grown easily in pots. Let it spend the summer soaking up sunlight on the patio and then move the pot indoors for the winter. Be aware though, that your lemon verbena will drop its leaves when the temperature falls below forty degrees.
Your plant isn’t dead, I promise! It’s just gone dormant for the winter. Warm weather and sunlight will bring it back to life soon, so don’t toss your pot out into the snow and call it a loss.
The best way to grow your own lemon verbena is by taking a cutting from a mature plant.
A semi-hardwood cutting will root easily in warm conditions, with or without rooting hormone. Set a slim, woody stem with plenty of leaves, and no flowers in a pot of saturated perlite and coarse sand. Keep the cutting humid by checking the soil and misting the stem daily.
Some gardeners like to enclose the entire pot in black plastic for the first two weeks to encourage moisture retention. Open the plastic daily to mist your verbena stem and water if necessary. In 3-4 weeks, check for roots by tugging gently on the stem’s base.
Rooting can be a complicated process. Most gardeners choose to skip it and just purchase an healthy young plant from their local greenhouse.
The Right Conditions:
Lemon verbena loves loose, well-drained soil. A good potting mix will be idea for growing your plant in a pot. Outdoors, you’ll want to mix in plenty of manure and sift the soil well.
With especially wet soil, you may want to add in a layer of pebbles beneath the plant, to aid in drainage. Lemon verbena will die if its roots are continually wet.
If you’re growing verbena in a pot, choose a large one. This should be least 12 inches in diameter for a young plant, though you need to be prepared to transplant up as the plant grows. Lemon verbena likes to have lots of leg room, and its roots grow quickly in the first couple years.
A larger pot will also help protect the young plant’s roots from dramatic temperature changes. Remember, lemon verbena hates being chilled, and having a bit of insulating dirt around its roots will keep it from feeling the cold.
Unless you live in the desert, set your lemon verbena plant in full sun for the best growth and the most flavorful leaves. Desert-dwelling plants will be grateful for a bit of afternoon shade instead.
If you’re in the far north, like I am, it’s helpful to set your plant beside a bright, white wall or fence so this sun-hungry plant can soak up all the reflected light as well. The extra light helps lemon verbena produce leaves rich in essential oils.
The Dreaded Leaf-Drop:
Lemon verbena is a reactionary plant. When the temperature drops below 40 degrees, it drops it leaves to prepare for the winter chill. If you live in zones 8 and above, you can over-winter your plant outdoors. Prepare it by reducing waterings, and mulching well with manure and straw to help it weather winter temperatures.
In colder zones, many gardeners wait for the autumn leaf drop to move verbena indoors. This helps to avoid bringing insects in with it. If you’ll be transplanting your lemon verbena plant from the garden to a pot, the shock of moving will cause the plant to drop its leaves as well.
This plant loves to throw a little fit at every sudden change. Your plant isn’t dead or dying, it’s just the toddler of the plant world.
Leaf drop can be caused by root disturbances, cold drafts, sudden temperature changes, or just a simple transplanting. It can also be caused by shortened daylight hours. Lemon verbena hates change.
Don’t be surprised to see the leaves on your plant falling at the slightest provocation. They’ll grow back when the plant recovers from whatever little shock disturbed it. The dropped leaves are still full of scent, so gather what you can before they wither.
Remember to avoid over-watering your dormant plants, however. Winter over-watering is one of the most common ways gardeners accidentally kill their verbena plants. These plants need even less water while they wait for warm weather to come again, so keep that watering to an absolute minimum.
Snip away at lemon verbena’s leaves all through the growing season. Cut a stem and new growth will spring up. Harvesting is one of the few changes lemon verbena loves. It’s always willing to share a few leaves.
If you’ll need more than a few leaves, you can cut your plant back by up to half, quite safely. Try to cut from various parts of the plant to ensure that new growth comes back evenly.
After harvesting, dry the leaves by spreading them on screens and leaving them in a dry, shady spot. Or, bundle the stems and leaves together and hang them in a dry room. Attics are an ideal spot.
Once the leaves are dried, store them in a sealed glass container to keep them safe from dust and spiders. That said, you can make smaller, hanging bundles of dried or drying leaves to hang briefly in the bathroom. Shower steam will release some of the essential oils and the whole room will smell fresh and light.
These bundles should be discarded after a couple of weeks to prevent the plant from mildewing.
Using Your Lemon Verbena:
If you own an ice cream maker, you probably already know what an asset this herb can be. Steeping a few leaves in cream before making strawberry ice cream is an ideal way to use fresh lemon verbena. But there are other options!
This is a popular substitute for oregano in poultry dishes. You can chop the leaves up while they’re fresh and mix them into soft butter. Freeze the butter to use all winter long on roasting chickens or baked whitefish.
Dried leaves make an excellent tea – especially blended with mint, chamomile, bee balm blossoms, and lavender. This tea blend is a powerhouse of cold and flu fighting potential too. Sip it with raw honey at the first sign of the sniffles.
Lemon verbena also tastes delicious infused in gin or vodka. Just steep a small cutting of about 5-7 bruised leaves in a quart of good quality liquor for 4 days. Strain the leaves, and use the vodka to make refreshing, summer cocktails. Try mixing a verbena martini, or a verbena gin and tonic. I love shaking up the traditional Moscow Mule by using infused vodka instead of plain.
One of my favorite ways to use fresh lemon verbena is in a Dream Cake. I steep a teaspoon each of minced fresh verbena, chamomile, lavender, and bee balm overnight in a cup of milk. Then mix up the batter of my favorite vanilla cake, using the infused milk in the batter. Right before tucking the cake in the oven, I sprinkle in another half teaspoon of each herb. The cake bakes up into sweet, herbal perfection and inspires the prettiest dreams.
Healing with Verbena:
Lemon verbena isn’t just a lot of fun in the kitchen: it’s a fantastic healing herb. It’s especially useful for combating anxiety. Simply crush a few fresh leaves, and breathe in their scent. A few deep breaths of verbena’s potent fragrance is often enough to get your mind to slow down and relax a bit.
A sachet of dried verbena and chamomile in your pillowcase is another great way that you can use this plant to de-stress at the end of a long day. Sprinkling dried or fresh verbena in the tub for a long soak is another great anxiety-reducing trick. Add a scoop of Epsom salts, a tablespoon of baking soda, and sip a verbena martini for the ultimate treat.
Use lemon verbena tea to reduce high fevers, support the nervous system, and open up congested lungs. Infused massage oils not only ease anxiety, but strengthen the liver and relax an over-excited digestive system.