Lovely Lemon Verbena

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 8, 2005

Nature's chemistry set has a multitude of flavors, and she loves to mix them. Even those that stand out as the signatures of specific plants, such as lemon or lavender, are complex formulations. Parts of those formulations reappear in different plants, and never in quite the same way. We are always sensing subtle taste echoes as we munch our way through the plant kingdom. Just think of the flavors that trained palates discern in wine.

The one we call "lemon" is a case in point. It's unmistakable in the fruit itself, and a clear presence in other plants with the word in their names. Of these the tropical lemon grass, whose delicious stems are used in Asian cooking, is perhaps the most lemony, but there are also lemon verbena, lemon basil, lemon thyme, lemon bergamot and lemon balm. Others are prized for lemony aromas, such as lemon eucalyptus, lemon-scented geranium and marigold Lemon Gem. Some of these have strong chemical personalities in which the lemon part is really just a hint.

Lemon verbena is my favorite. A relative newcomer to the pantheon of classic culinary herbs, it originated not in the Mediterranean region, where many herbs are found, but in South America. There are no legends in which Greek nymphs are chased by lustful gods and transformed into lemon verbena plants just in the nick of time. Nor is there as much familiar medicinal lore. The plant was not known to the European apothecaries until the late 18th century, when it was imported to Spain for perfumery. Yet it does have some repute as a calmer of the stomach and the nerves. The adjective most often used for it is "soothing."

I find it lemony, but barely so, and certainly not a lemon substitute as recipe-writers repeatedly insist. With none of lemon's astringency, its clean, grassy taste is springlike -- powerful with no hard edges. Order an herbal tea in France (a tisane) and you'll usually get one made with lemon verbena. It's easy to see why. Pour boiling water over a few leaves and you'll have an aromatic cup -- delicate yellow-green in color and decidedly relaxing. Try dropping some leaves into a Chilean-inspired ponche (honeydew melon cubes floating in white wine) or into sangria or champagne.

When the leaves are young and tender they can be chopped into a tossed salad or a fruit cup. If older and stiffer they are best steeped in a warmed liquid, such as the milk that goes into a pudding, ice cream or sorbet. Use it sparingly. Enough to turn a custard green would make the flavor too strong. To flavor a cake, place some leaves in the bottom of the baking pan and let their flavor infuse the batter as it cooks; invert the cake to remove them. Since the herb is still uncommon, I love experimenting with it. Recently I made a beurre noisette -- sauting butter until it was nut-brown -- then added lemon verbena for flavor. Poured over potatoes and Tuscan kale, it made the dish an instant hit.

The plant itself is too lanky and awkward ever to have pledged the sorority of cute garden herbs. It doesn't even bloom consistently outside its native tropics, where it grows to 10 feet or more. Even in a Zone 7 garden it might grow to five feet, sprawling like a forsythia. That's fine with me. Having it intrude upon a path allows you to rustle it, bruise it and stir up the aroma of its slender, slightly sticky leaves as you walk by. It needn't be ungainly in a tidy garden. Snipping back the tips early in the season will make it branch and keep it more compact.

Lemon verbena is hard to grow from seed, but a small plant purchased in spring will make an impressive, woody-stemmed bush by midsummer. It should survive a Washington winter if mulched. It may die back to the ground, but will resprout late in the spring, just when you were about to give up and dig it out. It also makes a good container herb, especially if your soil is heavy clay, which it abhors. Bring it into a bright but sheltered spot in wintertime, but don't be insulted if it rewards this good deed by dropping all its leaves. (It is evergreen only in very warm climates.) I'd exclude it from your living quarters unless you think spider mites and whiteflies make great household pets. For kitchen use, cut the stems before frost and dry the leaves in a warm, dark place. Unlike most dried herbs, they do not lose flavor over time. They're also good for "strewing" -- an old-fashioned practice I think of as the lazy person's potpourri. Set a few branches over a heating vent. Sprinkle some leaves in your bath. For garden-variety tension, it's better than Prozac.

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