Lively and Lemony

Lively and Lemony

  • Good for: Butterflies
  • Used in: herbal medicines and scents
  • Native to: South America, naturlized to North America and some of Europe

I carefully troweled the last of the dirt around the spindly little plant. Tuan (the lawn ornament that walks like a cat) eyed me skeptically. "It's lemon verbena, pussycat," I said playfully. "It's not to eat." He batted the stem with a paw and I picked him up. "It's not to play with, either. It's a herb for humans." His look implied that plants were actually put on the planet for the comfort and recreation of the feline species -- but that they'd gracefully allow their human pets to enjoy them. And I'm certainly looking forward to seeing the lemon verbena flourish.

Plants trace the path of human history. Never content to travel without our prized possessions and familiar foodstuffs, human beings are responsible for much of the spread of vegetation over the planet. Although most migration went from the Old World to the New World, explorers discovered it growing in the warm, moist areas of Argentina and Chile. It's lovely lemony scent charmed them (remember, this was in the era when folks seldom bathed and perfumes were much in demand) and they took a number of plants back to the Spanish courts. It grew well even in this alien land and soon became commonly cultivated in Europe (particularly France, where it's one of the major crops for perfumes and spices.) The modest American Cousin had become a hit with the Old World Aristocrats. Today it can be found growing wild throughout the warmer parts of the Americas and Europe as well.

This is no low-growing wallflower but rather a full-sized shrub. that can grow up to 15 feet tall under the best of conditions. This is not, however, a good herb for Texas (as I discovered much to my dismay) because it needs not only warmth but water as well. Lots of water. You'd swear it was descended from water lilies. Its sensitivity to cold is legendary, too. The good news is that it makes a dandy container garden plant, content to stay within its pot (unlike the ever-enthusiastic mints) although it only grows to medium height (4-6 feet) at most when potted properly. In garden plantings it's a good contrast for lower growing, stronger-colored plants. Its fragrant, lemony-smelling narrow leaves and delicate white flowers make it a delightful choice for a warm and sunny spot

Lemon verbena isn't difficult to grow, but it IS (as I found out) rather picky. It prefers full sun and a light loamy soil (it didn't like my mucky Texas clay, I'm sorry to report). The severe summer drought got to the lemon verbena long before my silver maples started shedding leaves in stress. But I liked its looks and am determined to try it again in an area where I've got better mulching and a sandier soil -- sometime when Mother Nature hasn't planned a nice drought for North Texas..

If you're going to grow lemon verbena, choose a plant from a greenhouse rather than trying to raise it from seeds. It's one of a group of plants that don't do well from seed planting. You can prune it (and it does fine with pruning) but don't treat it like mint and trim it back to the stem. Whereas a good weedwhacking encourages the mints to fight back, trimmed lemon verbena simply falls over and refuses to recover..

Lemon verbena is one of the medicinal herbs used to soothe cramps and inflammations and calm the nerves. It's also good for upset stomachs (particularly those caused by strong emotions.). It's a very popular ingredient in potpourris and in stews, and I've even had someone tell me that they put a bit of it in an old nylon to throw in the dryer to make their clothes smell nice and lemony-fresh. This same friend tells me she uses lemon verbena in her vacum bag and it makes her house smell fresher. She claims it's a 'harmonious smell'.

Me, I can't tell. But I do know that its magic lures me as it once did the Spanish governors and one of these days -- when the time is right -- I'll try growing the local varieties of lemon verbena again.

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