A lemon’s fragrance is truly distinctive, and its culinary uses are almost limitless. But did you know that several other plants also impart a similar fragrance and taste to that of the true lemon? Some of these lemon plants even rival the store-bought lemon in both flavour and scent.

Lemon, Citrus limon

The true lemon tree is very tender, and its cultivation in more northern climates can be something of a challenge, but not impossible. There are even several dwarf cultivars that have been developed especially for indoor life. Their main requirement is plenty of sunshine and warmth, and protection from the cold in winter. Why not treat your true lemon tree as a patio or container plant, and then bring it indoors to spend the winter by a sunny window? When spring returns, take your plant back outside into the sunshine.

Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis

This highly attractive, sun-seeking, mounding perennial can grow up to 24 in (60 cm) high. Lemon balm is drought tolerant and therefore prefers well-drained soil. The dense, slightly crinkled, mid to dark green foliage releases a delightful lemon fragrance when rubbed or pinched.

The calming effects of lemon balm can be used to help treat conditions such as stress, anxiety, melancholy, insomnia, and even indigestion, while the tonic effects of the plant may help improve appetite, relieve menstrual cramps, and alleviate mild depression.

The plant also has potent antiviral and antibacterial properties that may aid in treating fevers, flus, and colds. Further, research has shown that lemon balm can aid significantly in inhibiting the herpes virus. Add lemon balm leaves to a bath to relieve muscle tension and soothe irritated skin.

Fresh leaves are great chopped and added to fruit or vegetable salads, soups, stews, egg dishes, and sauces as well as with vegetables, fish, and organic lamb and poultry. Fresh or dried leaves can be used in refreshing cool summer drinks, added to lemonade (of course!), or made into a warm and relaxing tea that both stimulates and calms.

Lemon verbena, Aloysia triphylla

Lemon verbena is a tender, woody perennial shrub with tiny lavender-white flowers in summer. Growing 24 to 48 in (60 to 120 cm) high, the plant prefers fertile, moist, well-drained soil and full sun exposure. It is perhaps best grown either as an annual or as a container plant to be brought indoors for the winter. Pinch back the tips of young shoots to keep the plants bushy with more foliage.

The fragrance and flavour of lemon verbena is very intense, and some say it even surpasses that of the true lemon. The leaves hold the strong scent of lemon, even when dried. The powerful lemon aroma is magnified when the leaves are rubbed or crushed.

In the kitchen, the uses of lemon verbena are very similar to those of the true lemon. Try the leaves with meat, fish, and poultry dishes; added to salads, soups, stews, and desserts; and in herbal vinegars, preserves, and vegetable marinades. Lemon verbena tea, both hot or cold, is invigorating and flavourful and may aid digestion.

Lemon grass, Cymbopogon citratus

Another tender perennial, lemon grass is a drought-tolerant annual that can grow to 48 in (120 cm) high. Its long, narrow leaves have a strong lemon fragrance. Lemon grass prefers well-drained, loamy soil and full sun exposure.

Lemon grass is used in many Thai and Vietnamese dishes, adding flavour to fish, poultry, beef, soups, curries, and sauces. The tea is pleasant tasting either hot or cold. Lemon grass is considered a very good source of iron, potassium, and manganese. The essential oils from Indian lemongrass, C. flexuosus, are used to flavour candies, pastries, and more.

Lemon basil, Ocimum x citriodorum, and cultivars

Basils are annuals that grow to about 24 in (60 cm) high. They prefer fertile, well-drained soil and part to full sun. The foliage of lemon basil has an intense lemon fragrance that is especially strong when the leaves are rubbed.

Both the leaves and tiny white flowers are edible and make a good-tasting tea as well as enhance a myriad of dishes, including in soups, sauces, salads, desserts, and fish. The basils are a particularly good source of vitamins K and A.

A couple of the cultivars available include O.b. Mrs. Burns and O.b. Sweet Dani.

Lemon thyme, Thymus x citriodorus, and certain T. pulegiodes cultivars

The majority of thymes are low-growing, drought-tolerant, evergreen perennial sub-shrubs that enjoy average to sandy soil and full sun. Most have fragrant foliage and many culinary uses. Our lemon thymes have tiny white to lilac-pink flowers that appear throughout the summer and, of course, lemon-scented foliage.

The fresh leaves add zest to marinades and sauces or are cooked with vegetables or fish. Nutritionally, thymes are a source of vitamins A and C as well as iron.

A selection of lemon thyme cultivars includes T.p. Lemon; T.p. Doone Valley, a gold green variegated form; T. x c. Gold Edge, another gold variegated form; and T. x c. Silver Queen, a green and silvery white variegated form.

Away with all pests

Most plants that have a lemony scent are natural insect repellents.

Lemon grass: an effective insect repellent and fungicide that is also available as a lotion.

Lemon eucalyptus: an effective mosquito and insect pest repellent. The oil is the major ingredient in some plant-based insect repellents. Scatter whole or crushed leaves around the house to repel cockroaches and silverfish.

Lemon thymes: effective mosquito repellents.

Lemon pelargoniums: mosquito repellents; however, not as effective as lemon thymes.

Lemon verbena: repels many insects including pesky mosquitoes.

Lemon balm: fresh, crushed leaves soothe insect bites. A very effective insect repellent when leaves are crushed and rubbed onto skin.

Lemon catnip: rub leaves onto skin to repel mosquitoes and other biting insects.

Lemon bergamot: essential oil is used as an insect repellent.

Even more lemony plants

Common name Species Culinary and/or medicinal uses
Vietnamese lemon balm Elsholtzia ciliate
  • leaves are lemon scented and deserve experimentation in the kitchen
  • gives dishes a spicy lemon flavour
lemon bergamot Monarda citriodora
  • strongly lemon-scented foliage makes a pleasant-tasting tea or cold drink
  • try leaves and flowers in salads
lemon catnip Nepeta cataria ssp. citriodora
  • lemon-scented leaves made into a tea is a great natural sleeping aid
  • cats are not fond of this cultivar
roselle Hibiscus sabdariffa
  • flowers and calyces can be steeped for a lemony flavoured tea
lemon myrtle Backhousia citriodora
  • leaves have a strong lemon flavour
  • can be found in dried form at certain gourmet food shops for use in cheesecake, ice cream, and more
  • essential oils have antimicrobial properties
lemon scented tea tree Leptospermum petersonii
  • strongly lemon-scented leaves can be used in teas

About the Author

Jesse Vernon Trail is an author, curriculum developer, and instructor on horticulture, environment, sustainability, and natural history topics.