Lemon is versatile. Pairing well with both sweet and savory dishes, its power is undeniable. A lemon gets its distinctive fragrance and flavor from a combination of essential oils, which are among the most recognizable in the world.
While lemons themselves are useful to have in the kitchen, I’d like to introduce you to three other plants that can provide a lemony-zing to dishes. I use these lemon-flavored herbs to season everything from chicken and rice to tea and cookies.
1. Lemon Thyme (Thyme citriodorus)
This hardy, evergreen perennial (pictured left) is a terrific garden plant in addition to being a real champ in the kitchen. The low-growing, lemon-scented herb reaches just 4 inches tall, making it a great choice for smaller kitchen and herb gardens. Lemon thyme is a different species than regular garden thyme and imparts a lovely lemon flavor to poultry and potato dishes, and even cocktails. Plants are drought tolerant and easy to harvest. Simply snip off a few sprigs and strip off the leaves before using them in a recipe. Lemon thyme is best used fresh, though it can be dried for winter use, as well. My favorite cultivars include Variegata, which has a creamy edge to the tiny leaves, and Lemon Supreme.
2. Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
A staple ingredient in many Asian dishes, lemongrass (pictured center) cannot be beat for it’s culinary prowess. I grow a few plants in containers every year. Although it’s only hardy in tropical areas, lemongrass is a fast grower, and plants that begin the season as a mere single blade of grass, are foot-wide clumps by the end of the growing season. To harvest lemongrass, individual stalks are pulled out of the ground and stripped of their outer leaves. The soft, cream-colored, inner stem is often sliced open before using. Because lemongrass stalks are woody, they’re almost always removed from the dish before it’s served, leaving only their delightful, lemony-flavor behind. I use lemongrass to flavor stir-fries, soups and chicken dishes.
3. Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citrodora)
This member of the verbena family (pictured right) is most often grown as an annual shrub where I live in the north. But where it won’t be exposed to winter freezes, it grows as a woody perennial shrub. I grow mine in a container and move the container into the house every winter and grow it as a houseplant to protect it from freezing temperatures. I then move the pot back outside in the spring. The plant can reach several feet tall if it’s not regularly trimmed and harvested. I use sprigs of lemon verbena to flavor fish dishes and salad dressings. I also have a few recipes that feature lemon verbena in jams and cookies. But my favorite place to use lemon verbena is in herbal teas. I dry the leaves and add a few to my homegrown herbal tea blends. My friend Nancy Heraud, The Lemon Verbena Lady, has lots of great lemon verbena recipes posted on her blog.
Enjoy, and let me know what lemon-flavored herbs you grow and use.