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Want a new way to add freshness to your summer? Try lemon verbena -- the season's most versatile and healthy aromatic
There is no flavor more associated with summer than the refreshing taste of fresh-squeezed lemonade. Tart and sweet with an invigorating brightness, it's a staple of the backyard cookout and a drink that is frequently enjoyed as the temperature starts to rise.
If you can't tolerate citrus or if you're simply looking to add more plants to your diet, there's a way to incorporate the essence of lemon without the acidity -- an herb called lemon verbena.
Lemon Verbena: An Herb That's Easy to Love
Lemon verbena is a perennial shrub with rough, glossy leaves that exude a robust lemon scent when rubbed. Sensitive to cold, these bushy flowering plants are easy to grow in a variety of locations, including sunny window boxes and herb gardens that are protected from frost.
Aloysia citriodora, lemon verbena's scientific name, is in the family Verbenaceae, which is native to South America. It can be grown indoors or outdoors, as a perennial in warm climates and an annual in colder climes, a versatility that has helped the plant spread in more ways than one.
Used in a variety of dishes and drinks to impart a citrusy flavor, lemon verbena is a staple of both chefs and bartenders. The plant's hardiness and adaptability also make it a favorite of gardeners who enjoy incorporating fresh herbs into their kitchen creativity.
Beyond culinary uses, lemon verbena provides an add-on to your herbal medicinal apothecary. Studied for a variety of ailments, lemon verbena's potent plant polyphenols factor into dozens of research papers on stress-related injuries, joint diseases, wound healing, obesity and more. The following studies outline just a few of lemon verbena's health-boosting benefits.
- Aids in Exercise Recovery
Lemon verbena's usefulness as a medicinal herb may not be well-known beyond the practicing herbalist, but traditional medical researchers have begun taking notice. The antioxidant effects of the plant's extract have been shown to help ameliorate oxidative stress associated with intense physical activities such as endurance running[i] and aerobic training.[ii]
A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that consuming a sports drink once per day flavored with 400 milligrams of lemon verbena extract helped athletes recover from the oxidative stress and inflammation leading to muscle fatigue and soreness.[iii]
- Supports Joint Health
Taking a lemon verbena supplement may help ease symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study examined the effects of a supplement combining lemon verbena extract and omega-3 fatty acid-rich fish oil on patients experiencing joint pain and stiffness.
Lemon verbena extract showed strong antioxidant properties when tested using the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) assay. The combination of lemon verbena extract with fish oil reduced symptoms of pain and stiffness significantly and improved patients' physical functioning after nine weeks of dosing.
Statistically significant improvements in pain, stiffness and mobility scores were observed at the third and fourth weeks of treatment.[v]
- Helps Wound Healing
Lemon verbena extract can also be applied topically to the skin when compounded into ointments and creams. A 2007 study explored the use of ointment prepared from an ethanol-based extract of lemon verbena as a preventative measure against Staphylococcus aureus, otherwise known as a staph infection.
- Assists Weight Management
In recent decades of medical research, plant-derived polyphenols have demonstrated the potential to help alleviate obesity-related health problems. In a study published in the journal Food and Function, 54 overweight subjects were treated daily with a supplement combining hibiscus flower extract and lemon verbena extract in a two-month intervention.[vii]
Biometric data including blood pressure, heart rate, waist circumference and hormone levels were assessed at baseline, mid-point and at the end of the trial. Results showed that the plant-based supplement improved body measurements, decreased blood pressure and heart rate, and produced a more positive perception of overall health for participants taking the supplement.[viii]
Lemon Verbena in the Kitchen
Lemon verbena can be purchased as an alcohol-based extract for supplementing, or you can find ways to incorporate the fresh herb in your home kitchen. Keep it simple, like a basic herbal tea, or create complex marinades and sauces, even fancy party drinks -- the limits exist only in your imagination.
A great choice for flavoring fish or poultry, stuff or rub the meat with a dry herbal mixture before cooking. You can add a lemony zest to pasta sauces by using a handful of fresh leaves when reducing; strain before serving. Flavor salad dressings and drinks by adding finely chopped or muddled leaves to liquids, keeping in mind to add fresh leaves only at the end of the process if heat is involved to avoid dissipating the flavor.
To add a hint of lemon to baked goods, try putting a handful of fresh leaves into a sealed sugar container. The lemon-scented sugar is perfect for making lemony shortbread cookies and delicate tea cakes. Other non-culinary uses of this multifaceted herb include essential oils for aromatherapy and creating potpourri or scented sachets for closets, drawers and pillow cases.
Growing Lemon Verbena
If you're growing outdoors, ensure the plant is protected from frost. Perennial shrubs can grow as tall as six feet and form a hedge that is several feet wide. If kept in pots or window boxes, this flexible annual plant will produce enough leaves for an avid tea drinker or casual cook to enjoy throughout the growing season and can be brought indoors during colder months.
Basic Growing Tips:
- Keep the plant warm by planting after the last frost and by moving potted plants indoors when the temperature drops.
- Choose a pot that's at least 12 inches in circumference if you're not planting in the ground.
- Enrich the soil with compost and feed regularly with a water-soluble plant food.
- Provide full sun (in most regions) and excellent drainage for plants to prevent root rot.
- If the top 2 inches of soil are dry, water your plant. Do not overwater; roots don't like to be wet.
- Harvest lemon verbena by pinching off leaves once they are sizable. Removing the top leaves will encourage a bushier plant and prevent "leggy" growth.
You can store fresh leaves for a few days in the refrigerator in an airtight container or screen-dry the leaves for long term storage. Crumbling dried leaves before use will release their flavor and aroma. Make your own extract by placing a handful of fresh leaves in a bottle of organic vodka and storing in a dark area for one to several months before straining.
[i] Lorena Funes, Lucrecia Carrera-Quintanar, Manuela Cerdán-Calero, Miguel D Ferrer, Franchek Drobnic, Antoni Pons, Enrique Roche, Vicente Micol. Effect of lemon verbena supplementation on muscular damage markers, proinflammatory cytokines release and neutrophils' oxidative stress in chronic exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Apr ;111(4):695-705. Epub 2010 Oct 22. PMID: 20967458
[ii] L Carrera-Quintanar, L Funes, E Viudes, J Tur, V Micol, E Roche, A Pons. Antioxidant effect of lemon verbena extracts in lymphocytes of university students performing aerobic training program. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2012 Aug ;22(4):454-61. Epub 2010 Nov 18. PMID: 21083769
[iii] Sybille Buchwald-Werner, Ioanna Naka, Manfred Wilhelm, Elivra Schütz, Christiane Schoen, Claudia Reule. Effects of lemon verbena extract (Recoverben®) supplementation on muscle strength and recovery after exhaustive exercise: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 ;15:5. Epub 2018 Jan 23. PMID: 29410606
[iv] Sybille Buchwald-Werner, Ioanna Naka, Manfred Wilhelm, Elivra Schütz, Christiane Schoen, Claudia Reule. Effects of lemon verbena extract (Recoverben®) supplementation on muscle strength and recovery after exhaustive exercise: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 ;15:5. Epub 2018 Jan 23. PMID: 29410606
[v] Nuria Caturla, Lorena Funes, Laura Pérez-Fons, Vicente Micol. A randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study of the effect of a combination of lemon verbena extract and fish oil omega-3 fatty acid on joint management. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Nov ;17(11):1051-63. PMID: 22087615
[vi] Ezzat Ollah Ghaemi, Didar Khorshidi, Abdolvahab Moradi, Akhter Seifi, Masomeh Mazendrani, Masod Bazouri, Azad Reza Mansourian. The efficacy of ethanolic extract of Lemon verbena on the skin infection due to Staphylococcus aureus in an animal model. Pak J Biol Sci. 2007 Nov 15 ;10(22):4132-5. PMID: 19090293
[vii] Marina Boix-Castejón, María Herranz-López, Alberto Pérez Gago, Mariló Olivares-Vicente, Nuria Caturla, Enrique Roche, Vicente Micol. Hibiscus and lemon verbena polyphenols modulate appetite-related biomarkers in overweight subjects: a randomized controlled trial. Food Funct. 2018 Jun 20 ;9(6):3173-3184. PMID: 29862395
[viii] Marina Boix-Castejón, María Herranz-López, Alberto Pérez Gago, Mariló Olivares-Vicente, Nuria Caturla, Enrique Roche, Vicente Micol. Hibiscus and lemon verbena polyphenols modulate appetite-related biomarkers in overweight subjects: a randomized controlled trial. Food Funct. 2018 Jun 20 ;9(6):3173-3184. PMID: 29862395