The lemon verbena plant (Aloysia triphylla), also known as citronalis, arrived in Europe only after America was discovered.
The Spaniards who explored Peru and Chile were enchanted by a large plant, very common there, exuding a distinctive lemony fragrance, which they called Cedron. After transporting the plant to Europe, they gave it the Latin name verbena, which means "leafy twig." But because the name "verbena" (or verveine) was already in use as the name of a European medicinal plant, the South American verbena was dubbed "lemon verbena" (Aloysia triphylla).
The similarity between the two names to this day causes some confusion between the two plants, which are quite different from one another. In Israel, lemon verbena is known mainly by the name "louisa" (some say this is in memory of a Spanish woman by this name).
The lemon verbena plant is relatively small, but under ideal conditions can grow as high as five meters. The plant, which has pointy pale green leaves with rough edges, was planted in many European gardens for decorative purposes. The tiny white or violet flowers appear on a small stem near the leaves or in some cases at the top of the stem, depending on the species. When the plants are in bloom, the leaves give off a very strong lemony scent.
Lemon verbena is still used for decorative purposes, but is not as popular as it once was. Potted lemon verbena is available in local nurseries and thrives in window boxes. Fresh lemon verbena leaves are available in supermarket chains and keep well for up to a week in the refrigerator, if wrapped. The leaves are easy to dry at home. Place them on a tray covered with paper towels at room temperature for a few days. After drying, the leaves should be kept in an airtight container.
An infusion of lemon verbena leaves has long been known as a drink and is popular today, too. Boiling water is poured over the fresh or dried leaves and left to steep for a few minutes. Strain before drinking. Lemon verbena tea is popularly used as an antipyretic, a digestive and a sedative. For quick and convenient preparation of lemon verbena tea, Wissotsky makes lemon verbena tea bags (NIS 10.75 for a box containing 20 tea bags), but fresh leaves are always best.
Lemon verbena leaves and the aromatic oil produced from them was widely used in the European perfume industry, especially to make soaps and fragrant oils. The leaves retain their lemony scent long after drying, especially when rubbed slightly between the fingers. The leaves were also an important ingredient in fragrant sachets placed in linen closets.
The leaves were never a dominant spice in any cuisine, but were often used as a fragrant addition to certain dishes. The fresh leaves, whole or chopped, were added to soups, fish and poultry dishes, desserts and beverages. Modern chefs use them now and again to add their unique lemony scent to sweet dishes, especially those containing milk. The milk is cooked with the leaves and strained, and then the preparation of the dish continues. However, just a few leaves should be used; otherwise their strong fragrance could overpower the entire dish.
Lemon verbena is particularly suitable for recipes containing lemon, and especially those containing tart fruits. If the leaves are very young and fresh, they can be chopped and added to a salad.
Dry or coarser leaves are more suitable for the preparation of a fragrant syrup, with sugar or honey, good for fruit salads or cold fruit-based beverages, as in the following recipe.
Strawberry and orange salad with lemon verbena
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Handful of fresh lemon verbena leaves, coarsely chopped
1 kg Strawberries
fresh lemon verbena leaves for garnishing
Place water, sugar, honey, lemon and lemon verbena leaves in a pot. Bring to a boil and lower the flame. Simmer for 15 minutes (or longer if a thicker syrup is desired). Strain and cool.
Quickly clean strawberries and remove stems. Drain excess water and cut each strawberry into quarters. Place in bowl.
Remove the peel and white pith from oranges with a sharp knife. Slice the oranges in thin slices and add to bowl. Pour syrup over fruit and mix gently. Place in serving dishes and decorate with lemon verbena leaves.