After an unseasonably cool, wet spring, summer has suddenly arrived with muggy, hot days. So what’s an overheated, sweaty gardener to do? I reach for lemon to cool me down, in the form of lemonade, lemon in iced tea, and tart lemony desserts.
I even have a perfume called Lemon Blossom by Pacifica. Anyone remember Love’s Fresh Lemon scented products from the 1970s? I used to douse myself in it as a teen, delighting in its sharp, citrusy scent. Lemon just does the trick to hydrate our wilted bodies and spirits in the summer.
The garden also offers lemony delights, in the form of herbs. My love for herbs runs deep, so when Ma Nature adds a citrusy tang to a plant, I’ve just gotta have it!
Here’s my list of four herbs with that spark of lemon scent and flavour. They’re easy to grow and will provide you with lemony bliss all summer.
NOTE: I am not a healthcare professional. Before trying any herbs for medicinal purposes, please consult your doctor.
The most immediate way to enjoy lemon herbs is to gently ruffle and rub their leaves in your hands, and voila – lemon! with a hint of herbal warmth.
1. Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora, aka Verbena triphylla, Lippia citriodora)
This is my absolute favourite for its sweet, candied lemon fragrance and handsome leaves. Lemon verbena is a small shrub originating in South America, which was brought to Europe in the 17th century by Spanish and Portuguese travellers. It is also known as lemon beebrush.
Lemon verbena’s essential oil is said to have calming and digestive qualities, and is a gentle sedative so a tea made with fresh or dried leaves would be lovely before bed. The scent is uplifting and raises the spirits. It raises mine every time I brush a leaf.
It is not a fussy plant, just needing medium-quality soil, some sun and a reasonable amount of water. It’s hardy only to Zone 8, so in my Zone 5a garden I grow my lemon verbena in a pot situated in full sun on my patio. When the air gets chilly later in the fall, I bring it indoors to overwinter in a cool bright spot. Don’t be shocked when it drops all its leaves – it isn’t dying, it’s deciduous and will grow fresh leaves in the spring.
HOW TO USE: Lemon verbena’s culinary uses include tea (great when iced), finely chopped into fruit salad, or to add lemony flavour to fish or chicken. Try simply picking and crushing a couple of leaves into your water bottle for a refreshing sip.
2. Lemon Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus)
Another top lemon herb for me is lemon thyme in all its forms and colourations. Lemon thyme is a small bush that no herb garden should be without. Richter’s Herbs catalogue lists seven kinds of lemon thyme, plus four more that are orange or lime scented. The regular bush form has dark green lemon-scented leaves. Golden Lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus ‘Aureus’) has leaves edged with gold, making it a handsome addition to any garden bed.
Creeping lemon thyme is also favourite of mine. The variety I love is ‘Doone Valley’ thyme, with its minute gold-edged dark green leaves forming a mini river that will wind its way around rocks and gravel, succulents and other plants. It can’t be used for culinary purposes as the leaves are so small, so just grow it because it’s beautiful.
Plant thyme in a hot dry location in full sun – think Mediterranean. I always let my thyme flower in late spring before harvesting, as the bees go crazy for it and it’s fun to while away a few minutes watching the bee drama. When the flowers are finished, I shear off the flowers, then cut stems off the bush and put them in an open mason jar to dry. Once thoroughly dry I put a lid on and store.
HOW TO USE: Chop and add to fish or chicken dishes, in marinades and salad dressings, and in baking. Try this delicious Lemon Thyme Muffin recipe by Baked Ambrosia. She uses plain fresh thyme, but lemon thyme can be substituted to add even more lemony flavour. A couple of teaspoons of chopped lemon thyme and some grated lemon peel can also be added to your favourite shortbread or sugar cookie recipe for a tangy sweet treat.
3. Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis)
I have to admit, this is not my most favourite herb, and I don’t grow it in my hot dry garden, which is better suited to Mediterranean plants. But it’s a classic lemon herb with a cleansing scent that to me smells a bit like lemon furniture polish, and its uses as a healing herb are long and many.
Lemon balm has been used for centuries by many cultures for depression, anxiety and insomnia. It also a favourite of beekeepers, as it is said to attract and keep bees when rubbed on or grown around the hive (its genus name Melissa means “honeybee”). In her wonderful book The Good Herb, Judith Benn Hurley says an infusion of lemon balm leaves steeped in wine has been a healing potion in many cultures for centuries.
Lemon balm forms a loose bush with pretty heart-shaped, scalloped and quilted leaves. When I grew it in a milder, damper climate I considered it a bit of a thug for its habit of growing new shoots from the roots rather like mint, and if I forgot to deadhead the small white flowers, it would also seed itself wildly about the garden. Lemon balm also has a golden cultivar with gold-green leaves that are very pretty.
HOW TO USE: You can make a good hot or iced tea with lemon balm. Hurley recommends steeping a tablespoon of bruised fresh lemon balm leaves in a cup of warm (not hot or boiling) water. Cover and let steep for 20 minutes then strain and sip. She also offers a recipe for Herbed Lemonade which includes three cups fresh lemon balm leaves, six cups hot water, juice of four lemons, and three tablespoons of honey. This would probably also work with lemon verbena leaves. I feel cooler already!
4. ‘Sweet Dani’ Basil (Ocimum basilicum x O. americanum)
You may not know that there is a lemon version of that most favourite of herbs, basil. ‘Sweet Dani’ was developed in the 1980s, and with a name like that, I had to include it on my list, right? Gardening Know How says it contains about 65% more natural essential oils like citral than other basil plants, giving her a sweet, lemony perfume and flavour.
You can read more about ‘Sweet Dani’ basil in herb grower Thomas de Baggio’s article for Mother Earth Living. Her development during an experiment at Purdue University is an interesting story. I’d love to have seen the field of ‘strange and beautiful basils” that produced ‘Sweet Dani’!
‘Sweet Dani’ is a strong grower that prefers full sun with good soil and adequate water. Like other basils, please don’t forget to pinch off all flower buds as they appear, so the plant doesn’t think its job is done for the year and stops producing leaves.
HOW TO USE: Chop ‘Sweet Dani’ into fruit salad, add as an ingredient in lemonade or iced tea, tear leaves into a green salad, or use in cocktails, like Cookie + Kate’s amazing Lemon Basil Mojito.
Have you got a lemony herb that you couldn’t do without? Share what it is in the comments, and tell us how you use it!