Herbs: Lemon Verbena; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition
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Herbs: Lemon Verbena; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition

Lemon verbena is just as popular today for use in cosmetics as it was in the early 19th century when its essential oil was first used as a scent for perfume. This herb was also used in traditional folk medicine to cure certain ailments. Lemon verbena leaves are edible and contain several of antioxidant flavonoids.

Lemon verbena is an aromatic, lemon scented shrub that originated in Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil and Bolivia. This half-hardy deciduous plant was imported to Europe from Spain’s South American colonies in the 18th century. It was primarily grown for its essential oil which were unutilized in the perfume industry until more cost effective lemon scented plants, such as lemon grass and lemon balm were substituted. Lemon verbena, also known as lemon bee brush or simply, ‘verbena,’ is also prized for its medicinal uses and as a food flavoring.

The History of Lemon Verbena.

Lemon verbena has had several botanical name changes since it was first discovered and brought back to Europe from South America. Originally the plant was named Aloysia triphylla by the French botanist Philibert commerson, who was part of Bougainville’s famous circumnavigation of 1766. Commerson who famously named a flower after the French admiral and explorer, brought lemon verbena back to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Madrid. There the Spanish physician and the botanist Casimiro Gomez Ortega and Antonio Paulau y Verdera gave the plant a new botanical name Aloysia citriodora. The plant was named in honor of Maria Luisa Teresa de Parma (1751-1819) who became the wife of King Carlos IV and Queen of Spain. Because of this lemon verbena became popularly known as ‘yerba Luisa’ in Spain and for some reason, Lucia-Lima in Portugal. This plant is also known as Lippia citrodora and Verbena citrodora.

In the 1780’s another French botanist Joseph Dombey was sent to Peru by the French and Spanish government to look for plant species that could be naturalized in Europe. Unfortunately the Frenchmen was not welcomed by the Spanish government in Peru, who resented him and his expedition. The situation didn’t get any better upon his return to the port of Cadiz, when his precious cargo of plants and seeds was confiscated and plundered at the custom-house. Many of the plants and seeds died as a result of being stored in a damp cold cellar. Among the few surviving plant seeds was lemon verbena.

Interestingly the aromatic scent of verbena is mentioned throughout the history of popular culture. In the 1939 in Civil War epic Gone With The Wind, written by Margaret Mitchell, there is a line in the movie where Scarlett O’Hara’s declares that lemon verbena is her mothers favorite scent. Also, in the TV series The Little House On The Prairie, Laura Ingles mentioned the perfume that Mrs. Beetle wore as lemon verbena, and that it was Laura’s favorite scent. Lemon verbena has been historically linked with love and romance. As such it was one of the floral scents chosen for Givenchy’s ‘Very Irresistible’, a fragrance for woman that was launched in 2003 and promoted by actress Liv Tyler. A new version of the scent was brought out in 2009, of which lemon verbena is still included, as is rose, star anise, jasmine and honeysuckle.

Lemon Verbena and its Culinary Uses: Although lemon verbena leaves are primarily used to impart an aromatic lemon scent to cosmetics, they are also edible.

  • The younger, more tender, leaves can be eaten like spinach, in stir fry’s or salads.
  • The leaves can be dried and used like an herb to flavor fish and meat dishes.
  • Verbena leaves are also used to make herb infused oils and to flavor vinegars.
  • Lemon verbena leaves can be frozen.
  • The leaves are also used to flavor desserts, cold drinks and tea.

To make lemon verbena oil; heat two cups of extra virgin olive in a saucepan on the stove until almost smoking then remove from the heat. Add a good handful of crushed lemon verbena leaves, cover the saucepan and allow to steep for about 2 hours. Strain the oil and use it to drizzle on grilled vegetables and fish.

The Nutritional Value of Verbena: Lemon verbena has been prized for its medicinal properties for centuries. Verbena tea is used as a calmative, sedative and to aid digestion. This plant also has antispasmodic, antimicrobial properties and is traditionally used to treat Candida.

Verbena contains hundreds of organic chemicals such as terpenoids, volatile oils, flavonoids and phenloic acids. The most abundant flavonoid in lemon verbena is luteolin. luteolin has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor properties and is a powerful free radical scavenger. Other bioflavonoids in this plant include artemitin, hesperidin and vitexin. The volatile oils are made up primarily of citral, citronellal and linalool.

Image: Aloysia triphylla; by Kurt Stuber published with creative commons licence at Wikimedia Commons.  Primary image; Hardwick Hall Herb Garden: By Kate Jewell, published with creative commons licence at geograph.co.uk

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Comments (2)

Amazing how you can remember what Scarlet O'Hara said in GWTW. Excellent Peter.

This plant has one of my favourite scents. There's a famous french brand of soaps and toiletries that uses it and I can't for the life of me remember the name of it, but Verbena is one of the nicest aromas around. Now I know the botany behind it - many thanks!

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