Aloysia citrodora

The cool lemon essence so delightful in potpourri, foods and sauces, and steeped in tea, had at least a half dozen alternate names and a circuitous journey to Europe in the 18th century from it’s native regions in South America.

An early botanical print

The accepted Latin botanical name, Aloysia citrodora is a species of flowering plant in the verbena family, Verbenaceae, that is native to Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. Common names include Lemon Verbena and Lemon Beebrush.

Philibert Commerson

Often great ideas and important discoveries happen simultaneously. Philibert Commerson, a French botanist who first publicly recorded this plant collected it in Buenos Aires on his botanical explorations with Louis Antoine de Bougainville (yes, the man for whom Bougainvillea is named), about 1785. The plant had already been quietly imported directly into the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid, where professors Casimiro Gómez Ortega and Antonio Palau y Verdera named it, though they did not publish it, Aloysia citrodora, to compliment the morganatic wife of the Garden’s patron Infante Luis Antonio de Borbon, Prince of Asturias and brother of King Carlos III.

The Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid

A drawer container used for transporting samples.

Other botanists with collections from Spanish America struggled: when French botanist Joseph Dombey landed his imports at Cadiz in southwestern Spain in 1785 they were impounded and left to die in warehouses. Officials refused permission even to have seeds planted. Of the plants Dombey had assembled during eight years at Lima, his Lemon Verbena survived.

Palau y Verdera’s earliest recording was completely disregarded, and when the plant became popular throughout southern Spain as Yerba Luisa it was connected, even in print, with the more prominent personage Maria Luisa, Queen of Spain.

King Charles IV, Queen Maria Luisa, and family. The Queen decided Aloysia citrodora had been named in her honor.

Casimiro Gómez Ortega sent seeds and samples of the plant to Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle in Paris. From Paris John Sibthorpe, professor of Botany at Oxford, obtained the specimen that he introduced to British horticulture. By 1797 Lemon Verbena was common in greenhouses around London, and its popularity as essential in a fragrant bouquets, gathered in ladies handkerchiefs, and for medicinal purposes increased through the following century.

Coming next: The Victorians, Everyday Uses for Lemon Verbena