Lemon Verbena is an aromatic shrub native to subtropical South America, its natural range extending across parts of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. It is now introduced in other parts of the Americas, Europe and Africa and is grown commercially in many countries, including Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, the south of France and Algeria for its leaves, which yield a lemon-scented essential oil.
It is typically a leggy shrub 1 to 3 m (3 to 10 ft) tall but in tropical climates can grow into a small tree reaching heights of up to 6 m (20 ft), especially if left unpruned and allowed to grow naturally.
The leaves are sword-shaped, light green and in propeller-like clusters of three or four at nodes along the branches. They are strongly fragrant and emit a pleasing lemon scent when crushed, considered the truest to lemon of all lemon-scented plants. Although deciduous in cold climates, it is semi-evergreen to evergreen in the tropics with most of the leaves staying on the plant throughout the year.
The flowers are tiny, white to lavender in colour and are borne on loose flower spikes growing from the end of branches. They come into bloom from summer to autumn and, like the leaves have a delightful lemon-scented fragrance. Despite being functionally hermaphrodite, with both female and male parts, they are seldom pollinated and as a result produce few to no seed.
The leaves on steam distillation yield a lemon-scented essential oil high in Citral, a lemon scented compound found in some aromatic plants. It is a pale yellow liquid with a strong lemon aroma and has wide application in scenting medicines, perfume, as well as flavouring food and gives a lemon aroma to soaps and other household products.
About 4,000 to 6,000 kilograms of fresh leaves are harvested per hectare per year in commercial plantations and with an oil content of 0.1 to 0.7% yield, on average, 20 kilograms of oil, the equivalent of 18 pounds of oil per acre. Because yields of the oil are very low, the leaves are steam-distilled as soon as possible after harvest to minimise vaporisation.
The leaves are also used fresh or dried for tea and to add lemon fragrance and flavour to poultry, seafood, vegetable dishes, desserts, as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Many consider its aroma and flavour to be the finest of the lemon-scented plants. The leaves and essential oil are also added to potpourri mixtures and air-fresheners used to scent and deodorise rooms in the home as well as cars.
It is a popular plant in home gardens wherever the climate is suitable, grown both as a herbal and fragrant plant because of its aromatic leaves. It is commonly planted in large containers or in an informal hedge.
Lemon Verbena has digestive and calming properties and the leaves can be made into a tea taken to relieve intestinal gas or bloating, or to act as a gentle sedative. Its sedative properties are reportedly similar to, but less potent than, Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis).
Grows naturally and is productive in sub-humid to moderately humid subtropical and tropical mid-elevation climates, generally in areas with annual lows of 10 to 20 °C, annual highs of 21 to 32 °C, annual rainfall of 500 to 1400 mm and a dry season of 3 to 7 months. Commercial plantations producing essential oil are located mostly in subtropical areas receiving annual rainfall of 1200 mm or less.
New plants are grown from cuttings, as seed are not always readily available. It performs best on free-draining loam and sand soils of a mildly acid to mildly alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 6.0 to 7.5 and on site with partial sun exposure. Full sun exposure in warm climates, especially during the sun intense afternoon hours may bleach the leaves, resulting in some flavour loss.
It forms a straggly or untidy canopy which benefits from pruning or frequent leaf harvesting to maintain an attractive shape, in particular for the home garden.
Lemon verbena is highly susceptible to fungal disease brought on by hot, humid conditions.
It is recorded in at least one reference publication as having escaped cultivation, but there does not appear to be any record of it as a serious weed anywhere in the world, despite its widespread introduction and cultivation. This may be due, in part, to its shy seeding habit, producing seed in small amounts, infrequently or not at all. It is assessed as a low weed risk species for Hawaii by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA).
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