In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett’s mother smells of lemon verbena, and in heaven knows how many other households of the 19th and twentieth centuries other mothers and grandmothers did too. Lemon Verbena in cologne or sachet form was the antidote to sticky, peal your organza blouse off your back summer days below the Mason-Dixon line. Lemon Verbena and iced tea in large Ball jam jar travelers to trek to the post box and back battled thick air and heavy legs.
I grew up as a little girl in Northern Virginia and Maryland where the summers were hot and sticky enough to please any reptile and where the perfume of choice was either White Shoulders or else these antique sachets. Some old timers would even brew their colognes – why not? They also made their own White Lightning, a sore point with the local sheriff who was always trying to track down and close the stills. I get the impression that the stills at least are a continuing phenomenon of rural Southern life in the States.
I am nostalgic for the lemon verbena cologne if not for the whiskey. Years ago Jo Malone had a Verbenas de Provence which did not smell natural to me and no doubt wasn’t. Fresh has a good Lemon Verbena soap which I use. The scent of my memory and the soap don’t quite match though, worse luck.
What I’m talking about is this plant, Aloysia citrodora the essential oils of which are currently prohibited for use in the EU outside of the absolute. The whole plant, leaves flowers everything, has got a strong lemon odor, in many ways stronger and more consistent than lemons themselves. And surprisingly for a plant that is almost a Southern cliche, lemon verbena will survive to about 20 degrees farenheit during winter. In areas where you drop down further than that you have to move your pot indoors to a cool room in the winter. Lemon verbena will make a small shrub for you if allowed to grow for more than a season, and can be trained into a miniature tree, though I’ve never seen that done.
Southern ladies knew that the flowers and leaves can be macerated in white vinegar to produce a very simple cologne or even in rubbing alcohol if you want a lemony scent, but the best verbenas are said to be sea side plants.
“I should guess that verbena likes to have sea air as well as sun on its face. it will grow without sea air provided it has old stones to its feet and its back, but sun on its face, but it will not smell so sweet.” This verbena trivia came from the writer Elizabeth Goudge whose grandparents lived on Guernsey where apparently there was a lot of verbena grown and put into cologne when she was a child. She went on to say that the monks of Caldey Island grew verbena nearly as good and put that into a cologne almost as heavenly as what she remembered. Not having smelled either, I’m in no position to know if she was correct.
However being a bit of a verbena lover. I’m up for trying her recipe of verbenas against a stone wall. Clearly if I wait for a verbena perfume I may wait forever, and how hard can macerating a few leaves be? I’m sure I’ll find out.