Making more than hay while the sun shines

It is forecast that tomorrow will be the last of these hot days. I will be pleased to see the back of them and I hope it rains too. The garden is looking very tired. But some plants have enjoyed the heat, including the lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora).

Lemon verbena is one of my favourite ‘herbs’ and although it is not really hardy here, it is relatively easy to propagate from cuttings (I will take some this week) and older plants need just minimal protection in a cold greenhouse. It is supposed to be hardy to -10c but a lot depends on other factors such as soil drainage and protection from cold wind. I will experiment more as the garden develops. Old plants produce large, feathery clusters of small, pale lilac flowers but it is the leaves that are so amazing. Rather rough, narrow and produced in three at each node, they are strongly scented of lemon. I always think they smell of lemon more than lemons do and I can’t quite say why. I would say it is like lemon sherbet but do I know what lemon sherbet is like? Really? I am not sure. There is a slight mintiness to the smell too. Anyway, I am not the only one to love the smell and since it was brought to Europe, by the Spanish, from South America in about 1767, it has been popular for its scent and flavour. It can be evergreen but in our climate it is usually deciduous and is often cut back to near the base. A while ago I was sent a photo of a shrub to identify. It was in a garden in Essex, UK and was 3m high and was, amazingly, a lemon verbena. I would have been so happy to have that in the garden.

Anyway, with the plants growing like weeds at the moment I decided it was time to use some of the aromatic leaves and not just sniff them.

Teas are the easiest way to use herbal leaves so I decided to have a go with the lemon verbena but to drink it cold rather than hot. I put 8-10 shoot tips (about 10cm long) in a jug, poured on 500ml of hot (but just off boiling) water and left for ten minutes. I then took out the sprigs and added some sugar. I used honey the first time but it changed the colour slightly and had too much ‘taste’ so I then switched to sugar – two teaspoons in the 500ml. Once stirred and dissolved I let it cool completely and it was served with ice.

It has a delicate, lemon taste – as you would expect – but without the acidity of lemon. It also has the unique zingy taste of the leaves and a beautiful lime green colour. What is interesting is how long the taste lingers after it is drunk. Making it has become a daily ritual.

I wanted to try something else so made a lemon verbena cake. This was a recipe I found on the net and as this is not a cooking blog I will just refer you to what I found here if you are interested. It is a cake with ground rice, cooked and then soaked in syrup, rather like what I consider Spanish almond or orange cakes – more delicious than they look and slightly grainy with the rice. Of course, as always happens when I find a recipe, there was one ingredient I didn’t have – ground rice. But I had pudding rice and blitzed it in the Nutribullet and it worked brilliantly. The taste of the cake is subtle but hey – it is cake so what’s not to like. If making it again I would try to add more lemon verbena and may try substituting some wholemeal flour to make it more puritanical as well as botanical.

If the centre looks a bit wet remember that it is soaked with syrup – it is cooked.

*The oils in the plant may have some photo-sensitising properties so, as with any new food, don’t go munching great handfuls of it all of a sudden. Lemon verbena also has supposed beneficial properties but be cautious when evaluating these.

Elsewhere in the garden the wasps are busy attacking the first of the apples to ripen. It is a sure sign that it is time to pick them. The birds attack any red apples, whether they are ripe or not. ‘Irish Peach’ is a tip bearer and the only really early apple I have. You can see a change in the colour as they ripen and they become more fragrant. They are also liable to drop off. Early apples have to be used immediately because they do not keep well, becoming soft and fluffy in a few weeks. But they are worth growing. ‘Irish Peach’ is not a popular apple these days, pushed aside by more modern kinds such as ‘Discovery’. I am a big fan of the latter but I am pleased I stuck to my guns with ‘Irish Peach’. It is probably not as good as it seems but, after months of shop-bought apples they taste really delicious. Get one at just the right stage and it tastes really appley – almost like artificial apple sweets – with the background apple taste of a cooking apple but sweet.

Tip-bearing trees are not given the usual apple summer pruning because the flowers for next year are at the tips of the new shoots produced this year. The usual way to tackle them is to leave any shoots less than 20cm long unpruned, to crop next year. More vigorous shoots can be cut back, to about 15cm, in winter. This will encourage several side shoots next summer that should be shorter and will crop the year after. If not pruned at all these trees can become large and rather weeping in habit.

You can see these two long shoots, produced this summer. These need to be shortened this winter to encourage a more bushy habit or the tree will soon become a sprawling mess. Shorter new growths will be left unpruned.

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2 Comments on “Making more than hay while the sun shines”

  1. Paddy Tobin
    August 13, 2022 at 9:11 am #

    Re Lemon Verbena, and several other shrubs, I have noticed that the heat released the volatile oils from the foliage so the fragrance come to you as you pass by with no need to take a leaf and scrunch it in your fingers. A new set of fragrances in the garden due to the heat.

    • thebikinggardener
      August 13, 2022 at 9:40 am #

      Yes, and lavender in particular seems extra potent this year.

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