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Lemon Scented Herbs

Growing Lemon Scented and Flavored Herbs for Cooking

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Lemon herbs are easy to keep on hand, in the kitchen.

Lemon scented herbs add zest along with layers of herbal flavor.

Photo: © Marie Iannotti

Not every gardener can grow a lemon tree, but everyone can have lemon scent and flavor in their garden by planting some lemon scented herbs. It’s amazing how much these plants mimic the essence of lemons. They are all relatively easy to grow and care for and the leaves, the most flavorful part of these plants, can be harvested and used in just about any culinary dish you prepare in your kitchen: teas, seafood, pesto, dessert... Even if you don’t think you’ll be cooking with these lemon scented herbs, it’s wonderful just to have the fresh scent of lemon when you are working in the herb garden.

  • Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) Lemon balm has an intense lemony scent, but the flavor is surprising sweeter than the scent leads you to expect. It is easily adaptable and can quickly become a nuisance in the garden, spreading underground by rhizomes. Frequent thinning is required to keep it in check. Otherwise grow lemon balm in a container.

    Well draining soil and plenty of sunshine should keep your plants growing well. I have never seen an insect pest bother it. Frequent harvesting will result in bushier plants. The panicles of white flowers are especially popular with bees.

    Lemon balm leaves are often used to flavor and decorate sorbets. They are also a nice accent with fruits and vegetable dishes. There is also a lime flavored cousin with variegated leaves.

    There is a variegated form and a lime flavored variety. USDA Zones: 4 - 9. 18" (h) x 15" (w).

  • Lemon Basil (Ocimum xcitriodorum) An easy way to add lemon scent to your herb garden is to grow lemon basil. Lemon basil will do well where ever regular basil grows. You can even start it from seed. The leaves tend to be small and profuse, so it’s easiest to simply chop some of the tender stem along with the leaves.

    Basils like full sun and regular watering. They don’t like to be left dry, especially while establishing. The more you pinch and harvest your basil, the more you will have. If the plant should get ahead of you and set flowers, don’t worry. Even basil flowers are flavorful and edible.

    Lemon basils retain their flavor well in cooking and work great in pesto and other garlic/olive oil dishes. USDA Zone: Annual. 18-20" (h) x 9-12" (w)

  • Lemon Catmint (Nepeta cataria 'Citriodora') I don’t think too many herb gardeners grow catmints for their own culinary purposes. If you have cats, you’ll be happy to know that they aren’t usually fond of the lemon scented catmint. Catmint can be a messy, sprawling, floppy plant, so don’t be hesistant to harvest and cut it back hard. Lemon catmint is a bit better behaved than the common ornamental catmints. This lemon scented herb grows to about 3' tall and has winter flowers in mid-summer.

    Lemon catmint is best used as a tea. USDA Zones: 3 - 9. 3-4' (h) x 12 - 18" (w).

  • Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora, Aloysia triphylla) Of all the lemon scented herbs, lemon verbena has one of the truest lemon scents. It is a tender perennial. In a tropical climate, lemon verbena can easily reach 20' or more. USDA Zone 8 can expect a small shrubby plant and if you garden where it freezes in the winter, grow lemon verbena as an annual.

    Lemon verbena prefers full sun and well draining soil, but it can use some afternoon protection in the warmer climates. If left to bake in intense sun and heat, the leaves will blanch and lose some flavor. Lemon verbena can be one of the last plants to resume growing in the spring, so be patient. It has a somewhat messy growth habit, but frequent harvesting will keep the plant in shape.

    The leaves of lemon verbena are used for teas and to season poultry, seafood and vegetable dishes and even dessert. USDA Zones: 8 - 10. 4-6' (h) x 6' (w)

  • Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus) Lemon grass is the lemon scented herb that gives so many Thai dishes their distinct flavor. Lemon grass is a tender perennial with bulbous stems and lemon scented leaves.

    Lemon grass is very drought resistant, once established, and thrives in full sun. It looks like a weedy grass, growing about 3' in height. It can be grown in containers, but does much better when direct plants.

    There is an annual sometimes sold as lemon grass, but it has no where near the scent and flavor of Cymbopogon citratus. USDA Zones: 9 - 11. 4-6' (h) x 2-3' (w).

  • Lemon Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus) Lemon thyme is as easy growing as you’d expect from a thyme. My problem with growing many types of scented thyme is that they all start to resemble one another in both scent and appearance. But I like the variegated leaf lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus 'Variegata'). It has more substantial leaves with gold and green variegation, which make it a nice ornamental too.

    Thyme is another Mediterranean herb that asks only for sunshine and well draining soil. Thymes will grow over and through stone and are still able to find all the water they need. They do tend to die out in the center, after a few years, so it’s helpful to either add new seedlings regularly or to try rooting some sprigs.

    Lemon thyme is popular for teas, but I often use it when cooking vegetables and fish. USDA Zones: 5 - 9. 6" (h) x 12" (w).

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