In the heat of summer, anything that is remotely cooling is welcome. Lemon scented or flavored herbs are always delightful, and this time of year is a good time to get to know a few of these easy- to-grow herbs better. Here is a brief introduction to a few of the most popular "lemon" herbs.
LEMON BALM - Melissa officinalis - Lemon Balm is usually one of the first herbs a beginning herb gardener grows. Often it is passed along from a gardening friend, being one of those over-eager plants that once you have it, you have a LOT of it! In my own garden in full sun, it limps along, browning and looking sad during spells of extremely hot weather, but recovers by fall if I cut back the tired growth in mid-summer. In recent years, it has found a more agreeable home under some crepe myrtles outside the garden where the shade and marginally moister soil result in strong, healthy plants. I have seen gardens with some shade and abundant watering where it becomes almost a pest with its vigorous reseeding. Personally, I'd never consider such a friendly, happy plant a pest. It is easy to dig up unwanted plants and add them to the compost pile. Use an infusion of lemon balm leaves for upset stomaches. It is especially recommended for nasuea in pregnancy. A hardy perennial, lemon balm will die bac to the ground after hard freezes, but reappear early the next spring.
LEMON VERBENA - Aloysia triphylla - If you asked a random sampling of herb gardeners to name their favorite lemon scented herb, I feel certain 3 out of 4 would select this one. Lemon verbena has the most intense, lemon-like scent of all the lemon scented herbs. A tender perennial, lemon verbena will survive most winters in the Atlanta area if planted in a protected location and mulched deeply. Remove the mulch before growth resumes once the weather warms up the following spring. Along the gulf coast it makes tall lanky shrubs. You can keep your lemon verbena as a pot plant and move it indoors before frost. Lemon verbena will often drop all its leaves when moved indoors in fall. It dislikes the sudden change to different conditions. Be patient, keep a little on the dry side, and it will usually put out new leaves. Lemon verbena is also useful for topiary work, making nice large standards. The leaves are used in potpourri, teas, and cooking.
LEMON THYME - Thymus x citriodorus - Beautiful in the garden, fragrant and useful, lemon thyme is another of the most popular lemon scented herbs. Making a lovely spreading mound of dark green leaves, lemon thym is a fine addition to the herb garden. It is also a great container plant, either alone in a 10" pot or as part of an herbal ensemble in a larger container. It is especially good when used with grilled fish or chicken, or steamed vegetables.
GOLDEN LEMON THYME is a variegated version with wonderful bright yellow edged leaves. It is a stand-out in the garden or containers, but depending on the stock your plant comes from, may not be as strongly lemon scented as the solid green versions.
LEMON BASIL - Ocimum basilicum 'Citriodorum' - The regular small lemon basil and the larger-leaved and overall larger 'MRS. BURN'S' LEMON BASIL are both easy to grow from seed annuals. The leaves are bright green with a bright lemon aroma. Use lemon basil in soups, stews, vegetable dishes, or cover steamed fish with a few sprigs as it cooks. The leaves are also useful in desserts, drinks, jellies, and vinegars, as well as potourri. Keep the flower spikes cut off as the seeds begin to form to promote new leaf growth throughout the season.
LEMON MINT - Monarda citriodora - Lemon Mint is, as the scientific name says, a member of the Monarda family, related to the familar Bee Balm. Unlike the perennial garden Monardas, however, Lemon Mint is a hardy annual in our area. Sow seeds directly on bare ground in late fall at the same time you sow Shirley poppies, bachelor buttons, and larkspur. It will bloom the following year in early June. The leaves have a faint but distinct combination of lemon and mint. The real attraction, though, is the dramatic calyxes that remain after the small flower petals fall. If cut when in the first flush of bloom and hung up to dry, the flowers make striking and colorful additions to dried arrangements and wreaths. If you have a place in your garden where the plants can be left undisturbed, they will reseed. But just like other reseeding annuals, the time it takes for the plants to mature seed, and the condition of the plants as they begin to die may be more than you are willing to put up with. For this reason, many gardeners harvest the flowering spikes for drying, then pull up the plants to free up garden space. Both the leaves and flowers are also used in potpourri.
LEMONGRASS - Cymbopogon citratus - This sturdy tender perennial should be more used as a structural element in all gardens. Though I have had it survive most winters, a line through Atlanta- Athens is probably near the upper limit of its hardiness range. Further south, it will come back each year. A native of the East Asian tropics, this is a plant that thrives on our hot and humid summers. Even a 4" pot of lemongrass planted out in spring will make a large, attractive clump by fall, giving you lots of lemon-y scented grass to harvest and dry for winter use in teas, potpourri and cooking. In summer, pull off stems and slice the tender white base and some of the green part into 2" sections. Add to any type of stir-fry dishes.
LEMON-SCENTED GERANIUMS - Pelargonium crispum, citronellum, etc. - Once you experience the pleasure of having several scented geraniums in pots on a deck or patio in summer, it's hard to imagaine being without them. All of the 'Lemon Crispum' varieties are small- leaved plants of relatively small stature, so you can keep them in 12" pots or less. Some of the other lemon-scented geraniums, such as 'Mable Grey,' 'Frensham,' and others are larger growing. To keep these growing happily all season, you may have to keep moving them on to larger and larger pots. All require adequate watering and regular fertilizing and occasional pinching back to keep them looking their best. Lemon-scented geraniums are great fresh in cakes, cookies, and fruit salads. A leaf or two makes a nice addition to a glass of iced tea or fruit punch. Most scented geraniums are easy to root from cuttings. Just cut off a 3" or 4" tip, strip off the lower set or two of leaves, and stick it into a hole made with a pencil in the soil at the base of the mother plant. Firm the soil back around the cutting, then continue caring for the large plant as you have been. The cutting will usually root in a few weeks. You can tell it is firmly rooted when it starts actively growing.. At that time gently dig into the soil around the cutting with a kitchen butter knife and lift out the new plant. Pot it up in its own small pot as a starter plant to overwinter indoors for the next spring. Fill in the resulting hole in the original pot with a little fresh potting soil if needed. All lemon scented geraniums have leaves which retain their strong fragrance when dried, making them excellent for sachets and potpourri.
The plants above are only the most common of lemon-scented herbs. With effort you can search out other plants which share the lemon fragrance. Consider the tiny Lemon Gem marigold, or the lemon/citrus fragrance of Tangerine Southernwood. You might even consider making a lemon garden, as Atlanta gardener Geraldine Laufer described in the June/July '96 Herb Companion magazine. Geraldine included yellow colored flowers in her garden along with the lemon scented herbs to make a total garden picture.
Here are some recipes to help you use the harvest from your "lemon" herbs.
LEMON HERB POTPOURRI (all material is dried)
2 cups lemon verbena leaves
2 cups lemon balm leaves
2 cups lemon mint (monarda citridora) leaves and flowers
cup lemongrass (optional) cut in 2" pieces
1 cup lemon scented geranium leaves
1/2 cup lemon peel, cut into thin ribbons or strips
1 tsp. lemon esssential oil
2 - 3 Tablespoons chopped orris root or other fixative material
As with all potpourri crafting, these measurements are only guidelines. Use whatever amounts of lemon-scented herbs you have to make up about 8 cups of dried "lemon" material. Mix the lemon oil with the chopped orris root and add to the dried leaves. A few cloves or cinnamon stick pieces would be a nice addition, or some dried rosebuds and petals. Use whatever strikes your fancy. Store in a large glass jar or zip lock bags in a cool dark place for a week or two to allow fragrances to blend, then enjoy in sachets, bowls, or packed into jars tied with a pretty ribbon for special gifts.
LEMON-LIME HERB CUPCAKES
4 Tablespoons lemon herbs, finely chopped, including lemon balm and lemon verbena
1 cup milk
2 sticks butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, separated
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Put the herbs and milk into a small heatproof pan and heat almost to boiling. Remove from heat, cover and let steep until cool. When ready to begin assembling cake, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Greas e and flour 2 dozen muffin tins, or use paper liner cups. Cream the butter. Gradually add the sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the milk. Stir in the vanilla. Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Carefully fold the beaten egg whites into the batter. Spoon about 1/3 cup of the batter into each muffin cup. Bake in preheated oven for 20 - 25 minutes until golden and a pick inserted in center of muffin comes out clean. Remove muffins from pan and let cool on a wire rack. When completely cool, frost with Lemon-Line Frosting.
LEMON-LIME QUICK FROSTING
1/4 cup milk 1 stick butter, softened
1 box powdered sugar
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh lemon herbs
1/2 tsp. vanilla
juice of one lime
1 tsp. grated fresh lime rind, green part only
Cream the butter, then gradually add the powdered sugar and remaining ingredients. Beat until light and fluffy. If too thick, add a little more milk or lime juice. Add a few drops of green food coloring if desired. Spread the frosting over the tops of the cupcakes. Decorate with a whole lemon or lime scented geranium leaf, with a thin twisted half lime slice, or with a sprinkling of fresh chopped lemon balm leaves.
2 cups lemon-mint infusion (Steep 1 cup fresh lemon balm leaves and 1 cup fresh mint leaves in 1 quart boiling water for 10 minutes. Refrigerate until cool.)
2 - 12 ounce cans of frozen lemonade concentrate, thawed
3 quarts of chilled gingerale or Sprite
When the lemon-mint infusion is cool, add the lemonade concentrate. Stir until blended. Using a large pitcher, several quart jars, or a punch bowl, combine the lemonade mixture with the gingerale or Sprite. Serve over ice and decorate each glass with a fresh mint sprig.
2 1/2 cups pineapple juice, unsweetened
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon scented herbs, chopped coarsely
1/3 cup lemon juice
In a saucepan, combine pineapple juice and sugar. Cook over medium heat until mixture boils. Remove from heat, add chopped herbs, cover and let steep until cool. Strain out herbs. Add lemon juice. Cover and freeze for 3 hours. Remove from freezer and beat or stir briskly. Cover and return to freezer until hard, about 6 hours or overnight.
About the Author Dell Ratcliffe has been growing and using herbs in Oglethorpe County, Ga. for the past eighteen years, professionally for the last ten. She is the owner of The Country Shepherd, a farm-based herb business, selling plants in addition to hosting seasonal herb celebrations. Dell labels herself first as an enthusiastic herb gardener, then as "an herbal practictioner and educator", teaching classes and workshops and giving talks on any herbal topic, in Georgia and surrounding states.She also does private consulting on herbs and herb businesses and herb garden design. The herb garden at the Athens-Clarke County Welcome Center was replanted by her design in honor of the Olympics in Athens last summer. Dell is the editor and publisher of The Country Shepherd Herb News, a bi-monthly newsletter now entering its third year offering "Herbal News and Information for the Southeast". Subscriptions are $15.00 per year (6 issues). Samples are $3.00 each. For more information, to order, or to be placed on her mailing list, write to Dell at:
The Country Shepherd
Rt. 1, Box 107 Comer, GA 30629
Dell Radcliffe is a contributing author to the Atlanta Garden Connection.