Lemon Verbena: Our "Forgotten" Herb

Every summer there comes a time when the plants in the front garden have turned into a "jungle" of sorts. I always have to go out and be ruthless in pulling out the mint and horseradish that tries to overtake everything around it and free the rosebushes, poppies, campanula, and foxgloves that are being shadowed from the sun and the drip mist water system.

Well, this year I had to not only be ruthless with the mint but I also had to really trim back the lemon verbena that had gotten so large it was casting shadows on everything. This woody plant is probably the fourth lemon verbena I've put in.

The first spring here at Rosehaven Cottage, I put one in with the other herbs in the bed I had designated for a kitchen garden so my husband could go out and clip herbs for cooking. That lemon verbena was the first for both of us. My husband discovered that it was a wonderful herb to use in whole leaves as part of the preparation of simple pan-seared chicken breasts. By putting the leaves on the breast as it seared in olive oil, the chicken was infused with a wonderful lemony flavor that was rounder and fuller than using lemon juice. The aroma and taste were heavenly!

Shortly after that growing season, the first lemon verbena plant inexplicably died even though it should have weathered our mild winter. For some time I didn't replace it because I couldn't find a small potted lemon verbena available in our local nursery's herb section where I had purchased the last one. I left the dry twig remains of the last plant in the ground where it had been as a placeholder and reminder to get another one... someday.

A couple of years later, I found small lemon verbena plants available again at the nursery and happily picked up three! I planted two in the ground on opposite sides of the front path, and one in a pot near the house just in case it would do better there. All three have survived although the one in the pot and the one in the herb clipping garden always look straggly. The other one that grows amid the rosebushes is quite happy. A perennial bush, I need to trim it back in the winter to a well-shaped bunch of twigs and then it comes back with new growth in the early spring.

This year it was out of control by July. So I went out and began cutting branches off even though the entire time I had fears that somehow I was going to kill it like the first one that mysteriously died (don't all gardeners have unreasonable traumatic associations like this?). I told my husband that we would be harvesting the leaves to dry in our dehydrator so he could use the dried herbs in cooking throughout the winter. He was thrilled about that and lovingly kept me company while I trimmed the bush and piled the aromatic branches on his lap as he sat on one of the front porch chairs.

The scent of lemon verbena is quite heady even if I just brush up against the leaves. When I'm in there really cutting and handling the bush, the aroma is intense. The aroma of lemon drops enveloped me as I transported bunches of branches to my husband's lap again and again, enveloping him in their lemony sweetness.

Finally, after I got the bush under control, we decided it was time to bring our harvest inside. The massive bunch of limbs had to be wrangled in the front door where a bunch of curious kitties were waiting. The cats love when I bring in garden greens for them to sniff. They cry for them like I've brought in a vat of tuna fish.

This mass of lemon verbena really set them off. They couldn't get enough of it. They even started eating it! My ever-vigilant husband immediately wanted me to look up lemon verbena on the internet to see if it is toxic to cats. So I did. It turns out that not only isn't it toxic to cats but it is in fact one of 6 favorite plants that cats like to munch on alongside catnip, kitty grass, and others. Here I had a kitty favorite growing right out in my front garden and I didn't even know it! Silly me!

The kitties went crazy over the lemon verbena branches as I put them on the dining room table. I removed some smaller branches and put them on the hearth where they usually munch on their potted kitty grass. A few scuffles broke out as possessiveness took over for one or two of the kitties (Thomasina in particular). Who knew?

So now we have plenty of lemon verbena to flavor our chicken breasts and experiment with in olive oils, vinaigrettes, and herbed butters throughout the cooler months that are still an eternity away it seems. And in the meantime, I know what I can give the kitties when they need a little treat... lemon verbena!

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