Summers in the South with Lemon Verbena

Although my mom’s home base was Western Pennsylvania, she spent much of her time as a child and teenager in Sarasota, Florida, where a branch of the Carpenter family lived. Sometimes I think we were some strange brew of transplanted Southern and hard-scrabble Western Pennsylvania.(Photo by Renee/Playingwithbrushes.)

I am often pleasantly surprised by the similarities of my childhood  culture and the Southern one I live in now. We ate cobbler every summer, drank sweet iced tea by the gallon, and looked forward to the fair, where tractor pulls and pie contests filled us with anticipation.

One thing we didn’t have (not that I remember) was the rich diversity of summer smells I’ve come to know and love since living in Virginia—magnolia, honeysuckle, mimosa, wisteria, and my favorite, lemon verbena.

For many, lemon verbena is the quintessential Southern herb. Perhaps it’s because at least two of the great icons of Southern culture give it a mention—Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner. In Gone with the Wind, the herb is a favorite scent of Scarlet O’Hara’s mother. And one of the characters in Faulkner’s The Unvanquished wears a sprig of it behind her ear.

Even though I know better, because my own great-grandmother told me of wearing lemon verbana tucked in her cleavage in Western Pennsylvania, I still think of it as Southern.

Ever since I’ve been growing herbs, I’ve always included lemon verbena in my garden. The scent of the plant never seems to die. I stuffed its dried leaves in muslin bags in closets and in drawers. Years—and I mean years—later the scent was still there. It’s no surprise that throughout history it was mostly known and used for its fragrance. The Victorians loved it for cleaning purposes, as well, and would sometimes place sprigs of lemon verbena in finger bowls at each plate at dinner parties.

Another popular use for lemon verbena is in tea. It works either as a tea that consists of all lemon verbena for a cup of hot tea or  in glass of iced tea—much the same way you would use mint. This is probably my
favorite way to use the spindly-leafed herb. For me, ultimately, what is summer without sitting on the porch in the fading afternoon with a tall glass of iced tea, the chatter of crickets and frogs, and the gentle scent of lemon verbena in the air?

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