Ask A Master Gardener – Lemon Scented Plants

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, right? Gardens grown just for visual effect are missing an important factor: scent. Try a lemon garden this season with these spectacular and easy to grow plants that will freshen the air with their tempting aroma.

Most of the plants need to have the foliage crushed or brushed in order to release the scent and all can be grown in containers. They have practical uses as well as simple enjoyment in the garden.

Considered the “lemonist” of the plants by some, Lemon verbena, Aloysia triphylla, can be used fresh or dried. It is a tender, deciduous shrub that needs full sun and well drained soil.  It can be grown in a container and brought inside for our Wisconsin winters.  Use the tender leaves to flavor teas or water, as a seasoning in any dish (including desserts) that needs a bit of lemon flavor, and in potpourri.

Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, is not related to beebalm, but is often mistaken for it. Fresh leaves make a refreshing tea in the summer.  It is also a nice addition to fruit salads and vegetable dishes.  Take care when growing this member of the mint family that it does not outgrow its welcome.  It will self-seed as well as send out rhizomes and spread rapidly if not contained.  Cutting back after flowering will slow the progress as will growing it in containers. 

Lemon mint, Mentha x piperita f. citrata ‘Lemon’, is another aggressive plant that will spread without control. It, along with Lemon beebalm, Monarda citriodora, has a strong lemon flavor that can be used to flavor drinks, salads, and desserts. A sunny location and well drained soil will be ideal for these plants as well as lemon balm.

Lemon basil, Ocimum basilicum x Citriodorum, and Lemon thyme, Thymus x citriodorus, can be used in any recipe that their more traditional counterparts are used. Basil is an annual that requires regular pinching back to be kept in good shape for use. Thyme is an evergreen perennial that prefers full sun and lean soil. 

Lemongrass has a different growing habit than some of the other herbs. It is a tropical grass that is grown as an annual in Wisconsin for culinary purposes. The clumps can grow to three feet tall and make a dramatic specimen plant in a container.  It is widely used in Asian cuisine to flavor fish, soups, stews, and sauces. Grow lemongrass in full sun, with moist soil high in organic matter.  Be sure to take a clump indoors before frost to save for next year since it will not survive the Wisconsin winter.

There are several species of lemon scented geraniums (Pelargonium) that are grown more for their aroma and attractive foliage than their flowers; the flowers will be smaller and far less significant than the scented foliage. The leaves can be harvested and used in desserts, drinks, jams, and jellies.  They are also used for potpourri and perfumes.   Like the other plants discussed, these will not survive through the winter and must be brought indoors.

An Ethiopian proverb states: “Fifty lemons are a load for one person, but for fifty persons they are perfume.” Plant some lemon scented plants and enjoy the perfume.

 Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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