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Five Lemon-Scented Herbs for Citrusy Gardening

By: Mike Darcy

Low-growing variegated lemon thyme makes a lovely and tasty addition to herb or container gardens.

If I had to pick my favorite scent in the garden, it would be difficult to select just one, and it might depend on what scent I was smelling at the moment. There are many plants in my garden that have a pleasant scent I enjoy. Common Heliotrope comes to mind, with flowers that have a delicate scent somewhat like vanilla, but at the top of my list would be my lemon-scented herbs. I do not know exactly what it is, but there is something about the scent of lemon that is so refreshing that I never tire of it.

Of course a lemon tree can give us the true scent of lemon with their sweetly fragrant flowers, and aromatic foliage and fruit that give us the scent we know. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we cannot grow lemon trees unless we have a greenhouse, sun room, or a place to offer protection and adequate sunlight during the winter. So, the next best thing is to select plants that we can easily grow in our gardens that will give us the scent and flavor of lemon.

Lemon Verbena

Lemon verbena is actually a fast-growing tropical shrub grown as an annual herb.

One of my favorites would have to be lemon verbena, (Aloysia citrodora). Using the word ‘verbena’ can be confusing because many gardeners are familiar with the common garden verbena (Verbena x hybrida), which is widely planted as a summer annual. But, lemon verbena is a totally different plant.

Lemon verbena is usually grown as a summer annual, but this South American shrub is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 to 10, so it will overwinter in protected locations, if the winter temperatures do not drop much below freezing. It can also be brought indoors as a houseplant. It loves the sun and is a fast grower that can often reach 6 feet in a season. If not pinched back regularly, it will become a gangly, sprawling plant. The leaves of lemon verbena are bright green, rough to the touch, and have one of the strongest lemon scents. Just touching a leaf or brushing against the plant will release the aroma. I have a container of lemon verbena on my deck every summer that I plant in Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. The leaves are great for flavoring teas and iced drinks.

Lemon Grass

A lemon grass seedling will grow to a huge plant in just one season!

Tropical lemon grass, (Cymbopogon citratus), is a very easy grass to grow in the garden and forms a neat clump, like many other ornamental grasses. Add Black Gold Garden Compost at time of planting and pick a location that has full sun. This grass can even grow well in moist soils and also looks great planted in a pot with Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. The fragrant, tender bulbs at the base of the clump are used in Asian cooking, especially Thai and Vietnamese dishes. It grows as an annual in cold-winter climates, but one small plant will become a large clump in just one season. Lemon grass is also the natural source of citronella oil, so it wards off mosquitoes. [Click here to learn more about growing lemon grass.]

Lemon Thyme

Last year in my garden, I planted the lemon thyme variety, Thymus x citriodorus ‘Lime’, in a large pot on a stand. I wanted the thyme to cascade over the side if the pot, and it performed just beautifully. It has a very strong lemon scent good for flavoring fish and fresh vegetables, and its lime-colored foliage contrasted nicely with the other plants in the pot. This pot was left outside last winter and the lemon thyme came through with no damage. Another pretty variety to try is Thymus x citriodorus ‘Variegata’, which has a lovely lemon flavor and pretty variegated leaves.

Lemon Basil

The leaves of lemon basil perfectly pair the flavor of basil and lemon.

Everyone loves the taste of basil, but the unique tang of lemon basil (Ocimum × africanum) adds a whole new flavor to summer foods. The tall, bushy basil performs very well in the summer heat and full sun of the herb garden. Add its leaves to refreshing drinks or any dish where basil would be welcome.

Lemon Balm

Lemon balm tends to spread and self-sow, so it is best to grow it in containers.

Another easy lemon-scented plant to grow is lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). This plant grows quickly and can reach 2 feet in height in a season. The leaves are heavily veined and have a strong scent of lemon. Lemon Balm can quickly spread in a garden, and self-sows, so it can become invasive if not pruned back and kept from going to seed. I would suggest planting it in a pot to keep it contained. It likes a rich potting soil, like Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. The leaves are great for cold drinks on a hot summer day, or they can be dried to make lemony tea in winter.

The above mentioned plants are a small sampling of those available with a lemon scent, and it is not too late to plant them. Check out your local garden center and look in the ‘herb section’ for the best assortment.

About Mike Darcy


Mike lives and gardens in a suburb of Portland, Oregon where he has resided since 1969. He grew in up Tucson, Arizona where he worked at a small retail nursery during his high school and college years. He received his formal education at the University of Arizona where he was awarded a Bachelor of Science Degree in Horticulture, and though he values his formal education, he values his field-experience more. It is hard to beat the ‘hands on’ experience of actually gardening, visiting gardens, and sharing information with other gardeners. Mike has been involved with gardening communications throughout his adult life. In addition to garden writing, he has done television gardening shows in Portland, and for over 30 years he hosted a Saturday radio talk show in Portland. Now he writes, speaks, gardens and continues to share his love of gardening. To be connected to the gardening industry is a bonus in life for Mike. He has found gardeners to be among the friendliest and most caring, generous people. Consequently, many of his friends he has met through gardening.

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