Lemon verbena

Yesterday (March 20th) was the first day of spring – the equinox – and would have been my mom’s 62nd birthday. The last three years, I have tried to do something each March 20th to remember her – I remember her every day, of course, but something special I mean. Something to take an actual moment in honor of her, a moment that is more than just those passing thoughts of her that are with me throughout every day. I have planted lobelia with my brothers, in memory of my mom’s love of her garden. I have hiked through an old seminary in memory of my mom’s reverence for the sacred. I have walked through a sculpture garden with my husband and kids, and stumbled onto a Black Madonna sculpture by Christopher Cairns, which given her fascination with the topic of the Black Madonna felt almost eerily serendipitous.

This year, I wanted to do something again, something to make me take an extra moment with my memories of her. In our garden this year, I planted lemon verbena. I cannot look at this plant without hearing my mother’s voice – she couldn’t walk by the lemon verbena in her yard without breaking off a leaf, crushing it between her fingers, inhaling the fragrance and sighing. “Hannah, smell this. It’s lemon verbena!” she would say, delighted every time, holding it up to my nose. “I know, Mom.” For the hundredth, thousandth, millionth time.

My mom didn’t cook much, and so she didn’t actually use her herbs much. But she loved them! Oh, she loved them. She loved cutting them, drying them, and giving them away – or keeping them in jars until they disintegrated and were replaced with more of the same, or sewing them in sachets that she kept long past the point that their fragrance had faded. She loved knowing their histories, how they had been used medicinally, where they had been brought from, or – best of all – if they were native to the Bay Area. Especially in the last decade of her life, she was a big native plants person. It is in some ways, I suppose, the logical next step of the eat local movement … she was always sort of cutting edge in that way. She helped bring the city of Berkeley – Berkeley! – its first Farmer’s Market, she made her own yogurt back when it was still a counter culture food, and she maintained her commitment to organics even at times when she struggled to make her mortgage payments.

But I digress. I can remember her sighing happily and stroking the lemon verbena plant, but I cannot for the life of me remember what she ever did with it besides make me smell it. I think this recipe would have been right up her alley though – simple, sweet, and perfect for putting in to tea — which was another thing that she loved to have around, though that is a whole different story …  Suffice to say that, for her birthday, I made myself a cup of green tea with lemon verbena sugar, and when Jacob asked me what I was doing I held the little mason jar of sugar up to his nose. “Smell this. It’s lemon verbena!”

Lemon Verbena Sugar
I got this idea from one of the stands at our Farmer’s Market, which actually sells flowering plants and herbs. From time to time they also have cunning little mason jars of herb-infused sugars – apple-mint, chocolate-mint, lavender and basil. The recipe seems to be slapdash and perhaps not a recipe at all, but here you have it. Since it worked with my lemon verbena, I imagine it would work with most any herb. 

1 cup good-quality white sugar (I love brown sugars, but this is not the place!)
15-20 lemon verbena leaves (fresh, not dried)

Put the sugar and the herb in a bowl and mix gently. Then, put them in a jar together and give it a shake. Make sure the leaves are fairly evenly distributed. Every few days, give it another shake or stir.  After about three weeks, taste it to see if the flavor has infused to your liking. If it has, remove the leaves. If not, keep testing it every day or two until it gets to the flavor you are looking for, and then remove the leaves. Will keep for “quite a while”, but try to enjoy it regularly.

Happy birthday Mom! We miss you. xo