Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
February, 2007
Regional Report

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Although most lemon herbs are best used fresh, dried lemon balm leaves make a delightful tea.

When Life Hands You a Lemon (Herb, That Is)

To be filed under the category of "everybody has to make a living" is the marketing technique of naming something as the "XYZ of the Year." So, it has come to pass that lemon balm has been named the 2007 Herb of the Year. I have no desire to cast aspersions on an herb of some 2,000 years use and many delightful charms, but it's not the only lemon herb worth growing. I like to set aside garden space for ALL, or at least most, of the lemon herbs. Some of these have their own designation, such as the aforementioned lemon balm, as well as lemongrass and lemon verbena. Others are a subgroup, such as lemon thyme, lemon basil, and lemon mint.

These various lemon herbs bring much to the table. Just as actual lemons add a magic touch to foods with their flavor and scent, so, too, do lemon herbs. Although generally not interchangeable, most lemon herbs are used in hot or cold drinks, salads, vegetables, fruits, fish, and chicken. Of course, they also find their way into desserts, usually by either flavoring the sugar itself or being made into a flavored syrup.

In the garden, the lemon herbs run the gamut from annual to perennial, hardy to tropical. Most grow well with full sun and well-drained soil. Although they can be grown among other herbs or plants, it might be fun to create some type of theme garden ... perhaps a small, formal garden of lemon herbs centered with a lemon tree in a pot. Or you could plant the herbs among bright yellow flowers and surround them with a yellow fence. However you choose to grow them, do plan on giving at least some of the lemon herbs a try this year.

Lemon Balm
Melissa officinalis is a hardy Mediterranean perennial, growing 2 to 3 feet tall and as wide. Unless plants are cut back before the seeds disperse, they will self-sow. The leaves have a subtle lemon flavor and fresh lemon fragrance. Add the fresh younger leaves to green salads, fresh fruit, or cooked rice. Or lay fish or chicken on a bed of lemon balm before baking. When dried, the leaves are best used as a relaxing, calming hot tea.

Cymbopogon citratus is a tropical grass, growing 2 to 4 feet tall, from Southeast Asia. Grow it as an annual or bring it indoors in the winter. The flavor is a combination of tart and peppery. Lemongrass is essential in preparing Southeast Asian dishes -- soups and curries -- but it can also flavor other foods, including sorbets and ice cream. Use only the lower 4 to 6 inches, chopping finely or bruising to release the flavor. The leafy parts of the stem make a relaxing tea. Use the stems fresh or freeze to preserve.

Lemon Verbena
Aloysia triphylla is a tropical deciduous shrub native to Chile and Argentina. Grow it as an annual or it bring indoors in winter, where it will remain dormant until spring. The leaves have a glorious and intoxicating scent and a strong lemon flavor without the sourness. Use the leaves in all kinds of drinks and desserts, but the flavor is best retained if left uncooked or only minimally heated. Much of the flavor is lost when leaves are dried; a better way to preserve it is to grind one part sugar with two parts lemon verbena leaves in a food processor and freeze.

Lemon Basil
Ocimum basilicum has small, intensely fragrant leaves. Like other basils, it is an annual. The best varieties are 'Sweet Dani' and 'Mrs. Burns', which grow 2 feet and 3 feet tall, respectively. They are excellent with fish or chicken, in soups, salads, pastas, and desserts. Or make an unusual homemade limonata, using both lemons and lemon basil.

Lemon Catnip
Nepeta cataria 'Citriodora' or 'Citrata' is a lemon-scented version of a cat's favorite perennial herb. Besides pleasing your feline friends, it also makes a good tea for the stomach or to aid sleep.

Lemon Geranium
This is just one scent among many of the scented geraniums. Pelargonium crispum 'Minor', commonly called fingerbowl geranium, has tiny, wrinkled leaves on stiff, upright stems. It was used to add a fresh lemon scent in fingerbowls at the Victorian dinner table. 'Frensham' has a more traditional look to its leaves, but it also has a delightful lemon scent. Use lemon geranium to scent sugar. Grow it as an annual or bring it indoors in winter.

Lemon Mint
This species was developed from apple and lime mints, and is known as 'Hilary's Sweet Lemon' mint. The fragrance is a combination of sweet, fruity, spearmint, and citrus. Use it in drinks or add it to salads and fresh fruit. Like most mints, it has aggressive perennial growth.

Lemon Thyme
There are at least 9 or 10 different perennial varieties of thyme called lemon thyme. For your main cooking needs, you want Thymus x citriodorus, with plain green leaves, or Thymus x citriodorus 'Aureus', with gold-edged leaves. Because I think both thyme and citrus flavors are so essential for cooking, this is the main type of thyme that I grow. It is an herb for the best of all possible worlds.

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