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Versatile Lemon Verbena

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By Connie Cottingham | Photos by Connie Cottingham & Sander Steven Lang/Shutterstock

I remember standing on Shirley Baker’s deck years ago, interviewing her for a garden feature. A sheet of notes was lifted from my stack and wafted in slow motion over the ridge of her roof, only to reappear a few seconds later and float down to our feet. For a writer, that experience was surreal—and really, really cool. But Shirley is really, really cool, and there is something magical and surreal about her garden. It is a collector’s garden of fascinating plants, staged in a series of creative, whimsical, inviting vignettes.

Shirley is an active member of the Athens Area Master Gardeners and the Piedmont Gardeners (known for their spring garden tour and the garden at the Athens Welcome Center downtown) and part of a weekly volunteer group that supports the curator of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia’s Visitor Center and Herb and Physic Gardens. Of course, when I asked her about her favorite plants, she had a list. One group of plants dear to her heart are the herbs. And among the dearest is lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla, previously Aloysia citriodora).

“I dry and then powder the leaves and add a bit to a cup of chamomile tea. Both herbs are natural digestives and sedatives, perfect for after dinner,” Shirley explains. She has studied herbs through a yearlong intensive program, by growing an herb garden and from her extensive library of herb books. She did share that the author most trusted and read by her on the subject of herbs is Rosemary Gladstar.

Most herbs have fragrant leaves to stand up to deer and a tough spirit that stands up to summer heat and drought. If you want to feel successful as a new gardener, then an herb garden would be a great venture with a high chance of success. With it, you will be able to harvest fresh herbs to delight dinner guests, make a pot of tea, garnish a bowl of fruit or a dessert plate, create a summer cocktail, or add to cut flower arrangements.

Don’t confuse lemon verbena with lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Lemon balm is not as intense in flavor, is an invasive plant that can take over your garden (characteristic of its family – the mints) and can react to certain prescribed medications. And it just doesn’t taste as good.

Lemon verbena has narrow, bright green leaves with a rough texture. The plant has an airy feel, with branches rising from the base of the plant like graceful dancers. Snipping the plant back keeps it more compact and bushier and gives you a harvest that can be used fresh or dried. There are myriad recipes on the internet to try. Blooms are white, airy spikes of tiny flowers in June, but a spring harvest may mean you never see flowers.

Lemon verbena is usually seen in containers, but ours survived last winter in the ground, and Shirley’s is 10 years old, getting that woody, rosemary structure. In Chile, Peru and other South American countries where it is native, it can reach 12 feet tall. It is a tender perennial, meaning that it may be evergreen in a tropical climate but deciduous when the temperature dips below 40. More than likely it will overwinter, but a very harsh winter could kill it. Container plants can be cut back and put into a garage, like the old-fashioned way of overwintering geraniums. Even in the ground, lemon verbena may take its time greening up in spring. Shirley’s is about 4 feet tall, because it is harvested in May after the first big flush of spring growth and then cut back by about half in fall before it drops its leaves for winter. In summer, spider mites may damage the foliage, requiring a dose of insecticidal soap, which can be made in your kitchen.

A few people we know will steep lemon verbena in water, perhaps adding sprigs of fresh mint, and then strain for a refreshing summer drink. If you have an ice cube tray (remember ice cube trays?), you may put a decorative tiny sprig in each ice cube. Once you start growing this plant, more and more ideas will come to you.

 

Connie Cottingham is a garden and travel writer and landscape architect in Athens whose current obsession is garden webinars, so much so that she has compiled a calendar of online (and in-person) gardening events:  https://tinyurl.com/garden-events