Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ode to Lemon Verbena

Lemon Verbena Hair Rinse by Chiot's Run
Lemon Verbena Hair Rinse, a photo by Chiot's Run on Flickr.
Once upon a time (in the 18th century, to be exact), there lived an Italian princess (or perhaps she was French) who like most princesses, was married off to become a queen in another country (let's make it Spain). Her name was Maria Luisa de Parma, and a look at her ancestry is about as confusing as detecting the subtle odour of Parma violets while standing upright and glancing at them in their natural habitat, which is usually not much higher than ground level. One thing concerning this queen is certain though: she'll be always remembered by the plant that was named after her, Hierba Louisa, which is now called Aloysia triphylla AKA Lippia triphylla, L. citriodora, otherwise known to mere mortals as Lemon Verbena or Louisa.

Louisa was the only saving grace in what will be remembered as the 2013 edition of Summer from Hell. I spent most of it under the merciless scorching sun of the Israeli skies, which was occasionally disturbed by smoking military jets and missiles, reminding me that it could be a lot, a lot worse. But that still did not make matters any better.

What did make them better were little tiny moments like waking up a little bit before the sun arrived and sneaking outside just before it will  become unbearable (which is anywhere between 7am-7pm), and picking some fresh lemon verbena leaves and steep them into a fresh leaf iced tea or refrigerator infusion. If planned well, you might even be able to bake a pastry or two without overheating your space (again, early morning only).

I can repeat too many times how unbearable the heat was; because this is the only way you will understand how wonderfully refreshing it was to sip on lemon verbena iced tea and cool off a bit. Lemon verbena is not just lemony, it's also floral and wonderful beyond what simple adjectives can describe. There are plenty of lemony things out there, which are quite wonderful as well: lemongrass, lemon balm, and lemon onto its own with its lip puckering sourness and essential-oil-packed zest are something I find irresistible. But lemon verbena deserves a category onto its own. The high content of citral (aka geraniol/nerol), which accounts for 30-40% of its chemical makeup, is what makes it feel like a candy or a treat. Citronellol (nerol/geraniol) account for around 10%, and make it feel floral and citrusy all at once. But that is something you'll find also in other notes (such as lemon myrtle, litsea cubeba, and citronella), which only goes to show that it's the trace molecules that really make some raw materials stand apart. Lemon verbena is arguably the most delicately balanced and delicious of them all. And beautifully accessible through infusion into all sorts of beverages and sweets. Fresh lemongrass and dried lemon verbena come only second to this heavenly citrus leaf.

Lemon Verbena - Arugot HaBosem

Lemon verbena was imported to Europe after the Spaniards discovered it in South America. The French botanist Philibert Commerson discovered it in Buenos Aires as early as 1767, yet it wasn't till the late 18th century that the plant became popular in gardens in the warmer parts of Europe, and greenhouses in London. The plant is a perennial bush that can grow quite tall if well watered and fertilized, and will shed its leaves in the cooler season (and even the Israeli winter is too cold for this sub-tropical plant). Otherwise, it has fresh bright green leaves that are soft when young and become more stiff and rough when they become more mature. Typically,  the leaves are not used (neither whole nor chopped up) in any recipe, but rather infused to impart their floral-lemony flavour to dishes.

Lemon Verbena

As far as perfume-related applications go, dried leaves of lemon verbena are a wonderful addition to poutpourris and sachets. However, lemon verbena's essential oil is banned for use in Europe and are restricted by IFRA, due to potential phototoxicity. Odour-wise it would make a fine choice for any number of citrus and cologne type scents; as well as imparting a sweet, lemony, floral heart note and a refreshingly sweet effect to any fragrance genre a perfumer would desire, from floral to orientals, fougeres and chypres. Fortunately, there are other oils that bring a similar effect - May Chang (also called "Tropical Verbena"), from the berries of the Litsea cubeba plant). Thankfully, it is also far cheaper to produce than true lemon verbena oil.

Made in Clil

Lemon verbena is one of the signature notes in my work as a perfumer, and not surprisingly. My life-long love affair with this plant hasn't began many summers ago, and ever since we've been growing it in the village it was a source of grounding and happiness. It turns out that Lemon Verbena has powerful anti-oxidant properties: "Moderate antioxidant supplementation with lemon verbena extract protects neutrophils against oxidative damage, decreasing the signs of muscular damage in chronic running exercise without blocking the cellular adaptation to exercise",  so it might have helped me more than I know, drinking it regularly when I was growing up. It also seems to have very calming and grounding effect, and in aromatherapy it is considered to be calming and to help relieve spasms and stomach discomforts, especially due to stress; it also increases appetite, and helps lower fever.

There is something immensely cheerful about its scent, and sipping a tea, especially from the fresh leaves, is sublime. The dry leaves aren't half bad either, especially if you get them from healthy plants that were grown in optimal conditions and harvested and dried with love and care. Such as the ones my family picks for me in my home village Clil; or the ones I've purchased from the newly opened "Made In Clil" shop (which is inside a tent, just to give you an idea of which kind of village this is). Note the three-leaved decoration on the shop's sign: these are lemon verbena leaves, which only shows you how much we associate this plant with the village life...

I've used the dried leaves from my village to make my Charisma tea, which is the first tea blend I've ever made (blended with jasmine green tea, spearmint and osmanthus).  I've just made more of it yesterday and as I was blending it my mood has improved by 300%, making me smile the whole time. It reminded me of the first time I worked a few hours of hard labour at the village, helping a neighbouring family who had an herbal farm to separate the dried leaves from the branches. We had to wear gardeners' gloves to protect our fingers and hands from the very rough dry leaves. We ran through many pairs of gloves in the process - the branches and leaved chaffed through the fabric and even with the gloves it hurt to do the job. I remember sitting there and thinking to myself, I don't mind this work at all even if it cuts through my skin, because of the heavenly smell! And it was then and there that I had my first entrepreneurial idea, way back in my teenage years... Perhaps now you can see why I attribute so much of where I am now to Lemon Verbena.

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