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Lemon Herbs

July 11, 1998|SHARON WHATLEY

Here are the most-favored herbs to grow for their lemon scent. Position herbs near paths or intermingle with stepping stones so they're easy to harvest:

* LEMON BALM (Melissa officinalis): According to Gerard's Herbal, 1927, "Bawne drunke in wine is good against the bitings of venomous beast, comforts the heart, and driveth away all melancholy and sadnesse." Perhaps the most enjoyed herb for its lemon scent, this hardy perennial reaches a height of 1 1/2 to 3 feet. A member of the mint family with the same tendency to wander, it is a good candidate for container growing. Easy-to-grow lemon balm prefers a rich soil and partial shade but will grow in full sun. Another variety, golden balm, grows to 2 feet and lights up borders with the pale gold markings on its leaves. Given too much sun, golden balm's leaves will turn green.

* LEMON BASIL (Ocimum basilicum 'Citriodorum'): A fragrant annual with tiny, bright green, pointed leaves, this basil reaches 1 to 1 1/2 feet at maturity. The annual sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) adds an attractive and contrasting leaf structure alongside lemon basil. While lemon basil has a sharp citrus taste, sweet basil is coveted for its mild flavor. Group three or more of each basil variety in full sun. Pinch back branch tips to prevent flowering and encourage growth.

* LEMON CATNIP (Nepeta cataria 'Citriodora'): This hardy perennial has a delightful lemon aroma and taste. At a full height of 2 to 3 feet, it is not as alluring to cats as ordinary catnip. An invasive plant that spreads quickly, lemon catnip does best in pots or containers sunk into the ground. Another perennial variety, catmint (Nepeta mussinii), boasts blue-lavender flowers in summer and is perfect for front borders, reaching a height of only 15 inches. Cats will enjoy a frequent roll in catmint. Both varieties prefer sun or partial shade.

* LEMON GERANIUM (Pelargonium spp.): 'Rober's Lemon Rose' has different leaf patterns on the same plant; 'Golden Snowflake' has large round leaves with a hit-and-miss pattern; 'Dr. Livingston' has deep-cut, coarse leaves and pink flowers; Lemon Crispum offers small dark green leaves that are crimped at the edges, lavender flowers and the scent of hot lemon rind. P. crispum variegatum makes a lovely garden herb with its silver and cream foliage, and the same lemony scent. Pelargoniums stay within a height of 2 1/2 to 3 feet.

* 'LEMON GEM' MARIGOLD (Tagetes tenuifolia 'Lemon Gem'): An easy-to-grow annual with mounded masses of edible lemon-yellow flowers. The dainty blossoms and finely cut leaves have a spicy lemon verbena scent, often used in cooking and potpourri. 'Lemon Gem' marigolds are somewhat drought-tolerant and will bloom right up until the first frost if spent blossoms are picked regularly.

* LEMON MINT (Monarda citriodora): A relative of bergamot (M. didyma), this hardy perennial grows to a height of 18 to 24 inches. Easily propagated from cuttings, mint will take over the garden seemingly overnight and is more easily controlled in pots (allow a depth of at least 12 inches). Planted beside other mints, it seems to lose its individual aroma and flavor. The pinkish purple whorl of flowers are showy all summer and should be removed on a regular basis. Its green serrated leaves give off a refreshing smell of lemon and can be picked any time. However, chopped leaves do not retain their lemoniness in cooking.

* LEMON THYME (Thymus citriodorus): This perennial has a reputation for hardiness and grows as a small shrub with tiny, dark green leaves and pale purple flowers. A must for any lemon garden, lemon thyme prefers a light, well-drained soil, kept on the dry side. It is best propagated from cuttings in early summer. Another thyme variety, golden lemon (T. citriodorus 'Aureus') is a lower growing upright shrub with pale lilac flowers and yellow markings on its leaves. The creeping golden lemon thyme (a selection of T. citriodorus) grows barely four inches high with gold-flecked glossy leaves, lavender flower spikes and a pleasant lemon scent. Lemon caraway thyme (T. herba-barona 'Lemon') is a fast-growing ground cover with a mat of caraway-scented leaves and rose pink flowers. All are good choices for border edges and between paving stones, as they release their scent when walked upon.

* LEMON VERBENA (Aloysia triphylla, also called Lippia citriodora): A deciduous or partially evergreen herb-shrub with long, pointed green leaves, it possesses the sweetest, most lemony scent of all the herbs. Reaching a height of 6 feet or more, it looks best among lower plants to camouflage its natural tendency toward legginess and should be pinched back to encourage a bush shape. Grown in pots, lemon verbena will reach 4 to 5 feet tall, becoming extremely lush and full of small whitish or lilac flowers in summer.

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