Would you like lemon in your tea?

In last week's article, I shared my love of hot tea and mints as tasty tea garden plants. I also shared how (with a little "confine-mint") peppermint and spearmint can be successfully grown in the garden without their typical fateful frenzy of foliage.

Would you care for a hint of lemon in your tea? Lemon flavoring is a popular addition to hot or cold tea. Since lemon trees are challenging to grow here in central Illinois, lemony flavored plants offer alternatives.

One of the easiest lemony plants to grow is lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). As one of the happy winter-hardy perennial members of the mint family, it has a fresh lemon mint flavor and fragrance. Fresh or dried leaves and stems of lemon balm can be used to make a mild lemony tea. It also makes a zippy addition to peppermint, green or black teas, or dress up iced tea with a fresh cut sprig of lemon balm. Fresh minced leaves can also be frozen with a little water in ice cube trays.

As with many herbs, the flavors are best in the semi-new (teenage) leaves. Not the youngest and not the oldest. Stems can be harvested to within 3 to 4 inches off the ground three times a year (spring, summer and fall) for lots of lemon balm to dry for winter teas. Water plants during the summer harvest or leaf edges may turn brown. Regular trimming also keeps flower heads cut off before the seeds mature to reduce invasiveness. Lemon balm thrives in full sun but also tolerates substantial shade.

Lemon balm will need confine-mint, or tea for two becomes tea for 102. Grow it in a container on a patio or deck where the plant and its reseeding can be confined. The cultivar Compacta stays about 6 inches tall and does not flower; therefore, it does not reseed.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is a knock-your-socks-off lemon flavor and fragrance without any bitter aftertaste. Lemon verbena leaves can be used fresh or dried. As with most herbs, the leaves need to be crushed to release the essential flavors.

Unfortunately, as a Zone 8 tender perennial, lemon verbena is not winter hardy here in Illinois. Grow it in a container and bring it indoors each winter or grow it in the garden as an annual. Be forewarned that indoors, lemon verbena will lose most of its leaves and pout all winter until it can go back outside to play in the spring. Grow lemon verbena outside in summer but near the kitchen for easy harvest of tender branch tips and leaves to flavor pitchers of iced tea.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus and C. citratus) also is not winter hardy here. As with lemon verbena, lemongrass can grow in a container and cycle through wintering indoors and summering outdoors. Lemongrass is often used to add lemon flavor to Asian dishes, but it also enhances the flavor of teas.

Lemongrass is no shrinking violet in the garden since the arching 3-foot-long leaves can reach 4 feet tall. Plant lemongrass in a sunny garden and harvest entire stems from the outside of the clump through the summer. When preparing lemongrass for teas, remove the tough outer leaves and use the tender white base of the stem and young leaves.

Tea plants are appealing in the garden, so make room for a tea party in a sunny part of your herb, flower or vegetable garden. Try your own blends and mixes; however, be sure whatever you add is truly meant to be edible. If you are on medication, always check with your health care provider for any alerts with tea ingredients.

For more information, visit urbanext.illinois.edu/herbs/, herbsociety.org or http://www.iherb.org.

Sandra Mason is unit educator, horticulture and environment, for the UI Extension, Champaign County. Contact her with questions or comments at 801 N. Country Fair Drive, Champaign, IL 61821, call 333-7672, email slmason@illinois.edu or fax 333-7683.

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