I often think of lemon in springtime. Lemony yellow is the colour infused into pale green spring buds and young tender leaves springing to life. It’s the colour of the sun making its climb from the spring equinox towards its highest perch at the summer equinox.
Lemon cools and cleanses the skin. Its antibacterial properties make it a perfect natural addition to soap, scrubs, bath salts, and face salves and cleansers. The taste of lemon is refreshing and tart at the same time, adding zip to most recipes and zest to desserts. Even when the recipe doesn’t call for it, I often add a couple of teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice to sauce, soup, or stew because it brightens and intensifies the flavour without overpowering the dish.
Lemon juice contains citric acid, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, bioflavonoids, pectin, and limonene. These constituents boost the immune system, promote immunity, and offer antiviral and antibacterial benefits that fight infection. Because lemon helps digestion and cleanses the liver, a teaspoon of the juice added to a cup of warm water and drunk in the morning may be used as a daily ritual for removing toxins (aiding weight loss in the process).
Citrus plants literally soak up the sun and its warmth all year long, which is why northern gardeners can’t grow citrus without an ‘orangery’ or greenhouse to protect them in winter. But we can grow a few herbs like lemon balm, lemon verbena, or lemongrass, all with an unmistakable lemon (or citrus) flavour. There are also varieties of regular herbs – such as basil, bergamot, hyssop, mint, savoury, thyme, and even hot peppers – that have a lemon cultivar or variety.
All of the following herbs, including leaves and berries from the trees, will add a definite lemon zing to your garden and your food. Plant one of each now in full sun – all are easy to grow and all, except lemon verbena, are hardy. Start harvesting as soon as the plant is about one foot high, and keep harvesting all summer to prevent blooms. All except the trees will self-sow and jump around the garden if you don’t remove the ‘deadheads’ and control their seeds.
Lemon herbs are often teamed with fresh or dried lemon zest which is the yellow, pungent, and thin outer layer surrounding the bitter white pith found on lemons. Both zest and pith make up the rind of citrus fruits, but only the zest is used in recipes.
Bergamot (Mondara didyma) – American Indians used bergamot, also known as ‘bee balm’, in tea to induce sweating. Medical herbalists use it as a digestive and to relieve/help prevent gas, and for fever, spasms, headaches, nausea, and fluid retention. It makes a sleep-inducing tea on its own or blended with chamomile. Leaves and flowers lend a citrus taste to green and fruit salads, brothy soups and vinaigrette dressings, salsa, tea, and iced beverages. Use it with fish and chicken, as well as egg and pudding desserts, yogurt, and soft cheeses.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) – Research has shown that lemon balm has a calming effect on the nervous system, which may be of benefit to individuals who suffer from fatigue, exhaustion, dizziness, anxiety, nervousness, and tension. Use lemon balm essential oil in spritzers as a room freshener to foster a calm and efficient work atmosphere. It attracts bees to your garden (a bonus!) and may be used in teas, sauces, marinades, savoury and fruit salads.
Lemon Basil (Ocimum americanum) – Basil aids digestion while reducing gas, stomach cramps, and headaches, and it promotes normal blood pressure. Use lemon basil essential oil alone, or mixed with lemon balm essential oil, in the bath to ease nervous exhaustion, mental fatigue, melancholy, or uneasiness. Lemon basil can replace regular basil in recipes: in teas, sauces, vinegar and oil, or dressings.
Lemon Mint (Mentha) – For optimum health benefits, use lemon mint with peppermint. Peppermint is used in teas or tinctures to treat nausea, indigestion, flatulence, colic, sore throat, fever, and migraines. A peppermint-soaked compress helps cool inflamed joints or rheumatism or neuralgia; an infusion in boiled water may be inhaled to ease nasal congestion. Lemon mint brightens teas and iced drinks, sauces, dips, and marinades.
Lemon Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus) – Thymol and carvacrol, key constituents of thyme essential oil, have powerful antioxidant and antimicrobial properties and are an effective fungicide with strong antimutagenic qualities. Long used for chest and respiratory problems including coughs, bronchitis, and chest congestion, lemon thyme can be combined with sage and oregano, or hyssop, in cough syrup and tea. Use lemon thyme as you would regular thyme: in teas, sauces, vinegar and oil, or with grilled meats, chowders, or desserts.
Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora) – This is a deciduous tender tree with leaves that are strong, sweet, and clear lemon in aroma and flavour. The leaves, which drop in the fall, contain vitamins A, B, and C and are antioxidant, antispasmodic, digestive, and sedative. Use in desserts, especially in iced granite or ice cream, teas, fruit salad, and hot and cold drinks. Gardening note: If you plan to grow this tree, it must spend winter indoors.
Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) – This tree is called ‘Northern Citrus’ because it thrives in cold climates and eight of its bright orange berries are as high in vitamin C as an orange. The berries contain protein, fatty acids, and antioxidants including vitamin A. They are anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, relieve pain, and promote regeneration of tissues. Use fresh or frozen berries for jam, jelly and other preserves, savoury or sweet sauces, dips or dressings, salsa, in cookies, scones, muffins, cakes, and in herbal tea blends. Soap and skin care products are made from the berries, the dried pulp, or the essential oil.