Lemon verbena: planting, care & propagation

Lemon verbena: planting, care & propagation

Lemon verbena is a plant deserving a spot in your garden not just because of its scent. In the following, we discuss lemon verbena care from planting to harvest.

Lemon verbena (Lippia citriodora) is one of the most refreshing herbs one can cultivate in their garden. It is also known as lemon beebrush and it belongs to the verbena (or vervain) family (Verbenaceae). Even just a light touch of the leaves releases a refreshing citrus aroma. Don’t let the lemony scent misguide you, though: lemon verbena is not related to the lemon tree, which, like most other citrus plants, belongs to the rue family (Rutaceae).

Lemon verbena originally comes from subtropical regions of South America and was only brought to Europe at the end of the 18th century. The outdated scientific name of this plant, Aloysia citrodora, points to Maria Luisa Teresa de Parma (1751 – 1819), the wife of the then Spanish King Carlos IV. For this reason, some foreign-language names of lemon verbena still hint at the name of Maria Luisa. For example, lemon verbena is referred to as “hierba luisa” in Spanish and “Luiserlkraut” in Austria.

Lemon verbena is an attractive potted plant for the terrace or balcony, but it is only partially hardy. The perennial and deciduous shrub reaches growth heights of around one to two metres in temperate climates in Europe. Under favourable conditions, the lemon verbena can grow even taller. One of the best parts of this plant, apart from its’ lemony scent, are the dainty flowers, which can range in colour from white to pink and violet.

Growing lemon verbena

Lemon verbena thrives best in a warm, sunny and sheltered locations. You can cultivate this plant exclusively in a pot or plant it in your garden bed in areas with milder climates.

Growing lemon verbena in a bed

Planting out should take place in spring so that the roots can develop well until autumn. In its original habitat, lemon verbena prefers loose, neutral to slightly alkaline soils without waterlogging. The vegetation period of lemon verbena in temperate climate zones extends from May to November. Lemon verbena blooms in August and is mainly pollinated by insects such as butterflies and bumblebees. However, the seeds only ripen in long, warm summers. Lemon verbena is not tolerant to frost. Therefore, it needs to be overwintered in a protected environment.

Growing lemon verbena in a pot

For pot and container cultivation, standard substrates, which are also used for classic balcony plants, are sufficient. A sunny to semi-shady place in a pot on the terrace or on the windowsill is ideal. Depending on how well the individual plant grows, it should be repotted into a larger flower pot about every one to two years.

Propagating lemon verbena with cuttings

Although it is possible to grow lemon verbena from seeds, it requires a lot more time and effort. Therefore, we recommend propagation using cuttings to multiply your lemon verbenas.

Lemon verbena cuttings

In early summer, cuttings about 15 centimetres long should be cut off the woody branches and placed in pots with growing soil. Rooting can be promoted by covering with foil, because the cuttings love warm temperatures between 18 and 25 °C. Once they have developed roots, they can be replanted in pots. Here again, you will have to be patient, because the plants can be cut only once they have reached at least 10 cm in height. In this way, the shrub branches out better and grows back bushier.

Sowing lemon verbena seeds

It is best to sow lemon verbena seeds in the months of February and March in a greenhouse or on a windowsill. A permeable substrate, which can nevertheless store water well, is ideal for growing lemon verbena. The seeds should be placed into the soil at a sufficient distance of about 1 to 2 centimetres. Because lemon verbena seeds require light to germinate, they should not be completely covered with soil (so that the light can still reach them). After that, place the plant container in a bright, warm place without direct sunlight. You should not forget to moisten it regularly so that the seeds can start germinating. A transparent cover (e.g. made of glass) can provide optimal temperature and humidity conditions for germination. After a few weeks, the first seedlings should show. Plants that are too close together can then be removed.

Lemon verbena care

Although lemon verbena is considered to be very undemanding, there are still some aspects of its care that need to be taken into account in order to enjoy your own lemon beebrush for as long as possible.

Watering lemon verbena

The soil should always be kept lightly to moderately moist. Excessive watering is to be avoided, as otherwise waterlogging is encouraged, and the plant becomes more susceptible to disease. Occasional dry soil does not bother the plant, but complete drying out of the substrate should be avoided.

Fertilising lemon verbena

Regular fertilisation between April and August promotes lush, bushy growth. It is best to use organic slow-release fertilisers, which ensure a sufficient supply of nutrients over the course of several weeks and even months. The fertiliser is decomposed by the soil organisms and is thus gradually available to the plant.

Pruning lemon verbena

In autumn, before the first frost, you can cut back the lemon verbena to two buds. New shoots are usually at the tips of the shoots. If the branches are left long and uncut, they become bare at the bottom and new shoots would develop only from the upper two buds. During the main growing season, lemon verbena can be pruned more thoroughly for the harvest.

Overwintering lemon verbena

Lemon verbena is extremely sensitive to frost. Under good conditions and in particularly sheltered locations, however, it can even survive a cold winter outdoors. To do this, the branches should be cut back to just a few buds in October. A layer of straw about 30 centimetres thick or a covering with garden fleece provides the necessary protection against the cold. Well wrapped, the lemon verbena can survive in the garden bed until mid-April.

But if you want to be on the safe side, bring the potted plant indoors before the first frost. Unless you cut back the lemon verbena in autumn, you can overwinter the plant at about 5 °C in the cellar, shed or staircase. However, darker, cooler rooms have the advantage that the plant sheds its leaves by itself, thus reducing the risk of rotting. Even when cut back, the plant can be overwintered in the dark. As the plant does not bear any leaves during hibernation, it does not need light. However, it should be watered from time to time.

The lemon verbena sprouts again at stable temperatures of about 15 °C. From March onwards, the plant can therefore be grown in a moderately heated room. After about ten days the first tender leaves and shoots should appear. If no more frost is to be expected, the lemon verbena may be put outside again in mid-May. Intensive watering and fertilising give the plant new vitality and strengthen it for the coming year.

Harvesting lemon verbena

The leaves of lemon verbena can be harvested from May to September. For this purpose, either individual leaves are plucked off or whole branches can be cut off a few centimetres above the ground. Only healthy plant parts should be harvested. Withered or discoloured leaves should be removed and disposed of. Fresh leaves are excellent for making herbal lemonades or for refining desserts.

Unfortunately, there is not enough light in winter to harvest fresh lemon verbena all year round. The plant would suffer, and pest infestation and stunted growth would be the result. If you still don’t want to do without lemon verbena, you should stock up on it during the summer months. The plant can then be cut back in autumn and sent into the well-deserved winter rest.

Storing lemon verbena

The fresh leaves of the lemon verbena can be frozen or pickled in oil. However, the simplest method of preserving lemon verbena is to dry it. It is best to wipe the fresh leaves off the cut branch. Then lay them out loosely on a cloth or newspaper. In an airy, warm place, the leaves will dry within a week. However, direct sunlight should be avoided. The slower and gentler the drying process, the more likely it is that the green colour and aroma will be retained. The drying process is only complete when the leaves crack when pressed together. If there is still too much residual moisture, mould may form during storage. If stored in an airtight, non-transparent container, the lemon aroma is preserved for a long time.

Lemon verbena: benefits and use

Lemon verbena contains an essential oil in all its parts. This essential oil is responsible for the fresh lemon scent if the plant. The scent intensity of the leaves is considerably stronger than that of most other similarly smelling plants. If you want to bring the fresh scent into your home, fill small herb bags with the dried herb. It can also be used to ward off insects, because mosquitoes, flies and some other insects seem to avoid the scent.

Lemon verbena is said to have positive effects on the digestive system and is considered to be antispasmodic. It also has a calming effect on nervousness and insomnia. A relaxing blend of evening tea made from lemon verbena, also known as “verveine”, is very popular in France. A cold brew made from lemon verbena is often referred to as “verbena tea”. Although verbena (Verbena officinalis) is closely related to the fragrant lemon verbena, it tastes extremely bitter.

lemon verbena use
Lemon verbena is said to have an overall soothing effect on the body and mind [Shutterstock.com/Geo-grafika]

To make an aromatic tea from lemon verbena, pour a quarter of a litre of water over 1 teaspoon of the crushed leaves of the lemon verbena and let it steep for about 5 minutes. When cooled, it tastes wonderful in summer as an iced tea and can be used to flavour other drinks. In the kitchen, the fresh lemon verbena leaves can be used as any other leafy greens. However, it is much more often used as a seasoning herb. The lemony aroma works wonderfully with fish and poultry. But it is also used to season salads and to flavour desserts such as pudding or ice cream. If you want to benefit from the taste of lemon verbena in winter as well, it is best processed into syrup, jelly or pesto.

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