Lemony Herbs Add Zest and Zing to Spring Meals

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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.



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This lemon blend may be added to soups, dips, sauces, and rice or bread stuffing. Combine equal parts lemon seasoning with one part kosher or sea salt and use as a citrus rub for rough skin. Use one tablespoon with hot water for an herbal tea, or add to sweet and savoury sauces. It may be combined with the dry ingredients in baked goods, or beaten into icing. For this blend, use dried leaves.
(Makes 1 cup if you use 1/4 cup as a ‘part’)


  • 1 part lemon verbena
  • 1 part lemon balm
  • 1 part coarsely chopped lemon grass
  • 1/2 part lemon zest
  • 1/2 part lemon mint
  • 1/2 part lemon thyme


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(Makes 1 drink)


  • Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 to 2 Tbsp liquid honey, to taste
  • 1 to 2 tsp Red Curry paste (recipe at end of article)
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 lemon grass stalk, bruised

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Bergamot is a natural for herbal tea and tea blends. It combines well with mint, other lemon herbs, and sweet spices such as those in this delicious blend. The spices are crushed but not ground – use a small, heavy (cast iron is ideal) mortar and pestle to pound the spices to about the size of short grains of rice. Herb teas should be enjoyed immediately after brewing because this is when the volatile oils from the herbs, as well as the taste and medicinal properties, are at their strongest. (Makes 2-3/4 cups tea blend)


  • 1 cup dried bergamot
  • 1/2 cup dried lemon balm
  • 1/2 cup dried mint
  • 1/2 cup dried sweet cicely
  • 3 Tbsp dried chopped citrus peel
  • 2 Tbsp allspice berries, crushed
  • 1 tsp cloves, crushed
  • One 2-inch piece cinnamon, crushed

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(Makes 1 cup)


  • 1/4 cup pistachio nuts
  • 1-inch knob of fresh ginger
  • 1 cup lightly packed fresh bergamot leaves
  • 1 cup lightly packed fresh lemon balm leaves
  • 1/2 cup lightly packed fresh mint leaves
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

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Being a high energy way to add healing power to between-meal snacks, a small amount of this mix packs a healthy punch. In fact, a serving consists of one or two tablespoons, so use in moderation. Besides eating as a snack, you can add it to yogurt, fresh fruit salads, egg dishes, puddings, and cooked vegetables and grain dishes as an ingredient, or as a topping. Add two or three tablespoons to muffins, cookies, and as a base for tarts and bars to boost fiber and antioxidant value. Store the mix in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 months, or freeze for up to 6 months. (Makes 8 cups)


  • 3 cups large flake rolled oats or spelt
  • 1/2 cup amaranth or quinoa
  • 1 cup shredded or flaked coconut
  • 1 cup chopped almonds
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup soft coconut oil
  • 1/3 cup coconut nectar or liquid honey
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup dried sea buckthorn berries
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried cherries
  • 1/2 cup dried goji berries
  • 1/2 cup dried blueberries, chokeberries or elderberries

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(Makes about 1-1/2 cups)


  • 1 Tbsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • ½ tsp green peppercorns
  • 1 star anise
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 shallots or ½ cup chopped onion
  • 1 stalk lemon grass, white bulb, and tender green parts, coarsely chopped
  • 2 dried cayenne peppers, chopped fine
  • 1 one-inch piece galangal or ginger root
  • 2 Tbsp chopped cilantro root, optional
  • 1 Tbsp coconut nectar or brown rice syrup
  • 1 tsp grated lime zest (kaffir lime if possible)
  • 1 Tbsp lime juice
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tsp shrimp paste or fish sauce (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp coconut cream

Pat Crocker's mission in life is to write with insight and experience, cook with playful abandon, and eat whole food with gusto. As a professional Home Economist (BAA, Ryerson U., Toronto) and Culinary Herbalist, Pat’s passion for healthy food is fused with her knowledge and love of herbs. Her wellness practice transitioned over more than four decades of growing, photographing, and writing about what she calls, the helping plants. In fact, Crocker infuses the medicinal benefits of herbs in every original recipe she develops. An award-winning author, Pat has written 23 herb/healthy cookbooks, including The Healing Herbs Cookbook,The Juicing Bible, and her latest books, Cooking with Cannabis and The Herbalist’s Kitchen. www.patcrocker.com

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