Lippia alba: Oaxaca lemon verbena
It all started with a little tour of his back yard.
He’s an aging Greek professor and doesn’t like lawn, so his back yard is a tangle of edible plants…. incredibly strong basil from Greece, pineapples started from tops, an olive tree with one very proud olive.
“Here” he said, breaking some branches off a bush as round as it was tall, ‘the leaves make a great lemon tea.” He paused and emphasized it: “A really good tea.” I didn’t know it at the moment but that little exchange typified the schism in the plant world between those who use a plant and those who wonder what it is.
Years later I have five bushes of “it.” The question, of course, was and is, “what is “it” since my friend’s association with botany does not extend beyond consumption. It was clearly in the same greater collective as the American Beautyberry and the Lantana in my yard, which are both in the verbena family. The leaf shape, growth habit, and exotic oils was consistent with that family, but that’s a huge family.
“Where did you get it?” I asked him on another visit. From his neighbor he said. “Which one” I asked. “The Cuban,” he said. That was some help. It was doubtful this plant was from Sweden or the like. “Where did he get?” I asked. The answer was not encouraging: A shrug of the shoulders. Maybe Sweden wasn’t ruled out.
My first near success was to find on the internet a picture of a Lippia alba var. globiflora. That looked promising. I found it while looking for “Cuba and verbena.” At least I had the family, genus and species right. The variation is still debatable.
Lippia alba (LIP-pee-uh AL-buh) is one of those plants that was found when it wasn’t really lost, and then was lost but not by those who use it then found again by those who don’t use it. That’s kind of how my friend and I related to this plant. This past year he’s been pleasantly drinking tea made from the leaves. What the plant is, is not relevant to him or his plant. If I never figure out exactly what the bush is makes no difference to him. He likes the tea. That’s the same situation when researchers work on a plant and then leave for a century only to come back and rediscover the same plant the locals kept right on using.
The botanical name contains some intrigue as well. Alba means white. Lippia honors Italian naturalist Dr. Agostino Lippi, 1678 -1704 (some call him a French traveller.) But more than that it is a genus of plants that has aromatic oils and Lippia can also be the feminine form of Lipos, the Greek word for fat. It is perhaps a double entendre or a convenient naming.
If one does an internet search on Lippia alba one learns that it has been the subject of a lot of research, reported in 2007. It clearly has been discovered. Its oils are antibiotic, antioxidants, and sedative, not inducing sleep but increasing the length of sleep. It also helps prevent ulcers…. I was beginning to understand why my friend was so relaxed all the time. And indeed, I may never figure out which Lippia alba it is, if it is one. All I really know is it makes a nice tea…Perhaps that is all I need to know. Perhaps that is all we ever really need to know. Humanity got along fine without botanists, or nutritionists.
Now, pardon me, but I have to put some tea water on to heat….
Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile
IDENTIFICATION: Very aromatic shrub, three to six feet, branches slender, tends to sprawl, leaves heavily veined, hairy with strong lemon smell, leaves slightly hairy, oval to oblong, serrate, small flowers purple to violet, pink or white in leaf axils. Lower branches can put down roots.
TIME OF YEAR: Leaves year round
ENVIRONMENT: Grows in most soil and can tolerate some shade, naturalized in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, Native to Mexico to Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina as well as Colombia.
METHOD OF PREPARATION: Leaves as tea, fresh or dried. The bush has a multitude of herbal/medicinal uses. It is a sedative, menstrual aid, and anti-hypertensive, among many things.