The next time the thermometer rises, consider following the example of Victorian women. In summer they would pack lemon verbena leaves in handkerchiefs and get some relief from the heat by inhaling the plant’s pleasing perfume.
Or try an updated version: Cut a few sprigs to put on the dashboard of your car. You’ll get the sensation of strolling through an aromatic lemon orchard in full bloom.
At first, lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla, also called Aloysia citriodora) was restricted from entry when European explorers brought it from Latin America in the 1700s. But then a clever botanist is thought to have derived the name Aloysia from Maria Luisa of Parma, the wife of the king of Spain, and the plant caught on throughout Western Europe. It’s especially popular in Morocco, where it’s used primarily for tea.
The hardy perennial is a folk-medicine standard and with regular pruning can grow into a 6-foot-high shrub, topped with pretty white flowers in late summer or fall.
Cooks have found lemon verbena’s bouquet offers an alternative to other lemony flavors such as lemon grass or lemon balm. In taste, it’s closest to lemon zest but with a stronger aroma.
The leaves and edible flowers turn up in martinis, ice cream, syrups, sun teas, pesto, salad dressing. The leaves can be steeped, steamed, ground or infused in oils, vinegars and brines. The leaves are delicate, though, and break apart and lose their essence under high heat.
You can also freeze a paste of one part sugar to two parts crushed or processed leaves for use later. (The Times’ Food department offers some other ideas.)
Some proponents consume lemon verbena to ease headaches or reduce tension, said Irene Peña, executive director of the Proyecto Jardín communal garden in Boyle Heights, where the plant is grown. Others use it to calm an upset stomach. A cold compress of lemon verbena tea is said to shrink puffiness around the eyes.
Seedlings are readily available at most nurseries, or you can start your own with a cutting. It should be topped with a few leaves placed in water until roots emerge. Cuttings also can be started in a container of potting soil, covered with a plastic bag. Late summer or fall is a prime time.
Once you’ve transplanted lemon verbena into a container or the ground, trim the top regularly. That will encourage outward growth. Pruning too aggressively, however, may reduce the late-summer flowering.
Lemon verbena likes full sun, good drainage, reflected heat and weekly watering except during winter, when it goes dormant. It may drop leaves if it gets cold.
An established container plant also may lose leaves when it’s transplanted, but don’t assume the naked stalk is dead. Reduce the watering schedule to let the soil periodically dry out, preventing root rot, and wait until spring. It will probably revive.
The Global Garden, our series looking at a world of cultures through the lens of our landscapes, appears here on Tuesdays.