162 Cymbopogon citratusCommon Names: lemongrass, oil grass Family: Poaceae (grass Family)
Tracking the rising popularity of Thai cooking in the United States, lemongrass is becoming a favorite of American gardeners. This fragrant grass is a versatile performer in the kitchen where it can be used in teas, beverages, herbal medicines, and Eastern inspired soups and other dishes.
Lemongrass is equally versatile in the garden. This tropical grass grows in dense clumps that can grow to 6 ft (1.8 m) in height and about 4 ft (1.2 m) in width. The straplike leaves are 0.5-1 in (1.3-2.5 cm) wide, about 3 ft (0.9 m) long, and have gracefully drooping tips. The evergreen leaves are bright bluish-green and release a citrus aroma when crushed. It is the leaves that are used as flavoring and in medicine. They are steam distilled to extract lemongrass oil, an old standby in the the perfumer's palette of scents. The lemongrass plants that you are likely to encounter are cultivars and do not typically produce flowers.
Lemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus, is native to India and the nearby island of Sri Lanka. It is found growing naturally in tropical grasslands. It is also extensively cultivated throughout tropical Asia.
CultureIf possible plant lemongrass in fertile loam - but it will tolerate many other types of soils, including sand, if given some care. Light: Bright sun preferred but will grow in light shade. Moisture: Likes moisture but can survive some drought although its appearance will suffer. Hardiness: USDA Zones 10 - 11. This is a tender plant that suffers leaf damage from frosts and is killed back to the roots by hard freezes. I have been growing this plant for years in my Zone 8 garden where it always bounces back after a hard winter. Propagation: By division of old clumps in the spring and summer. Also by seed which is not readily available.
Gardeners in subtropical areas will enjoy using lemongrass in beds and borders. It also does well in tubs and containers. It is especially nice along walkways where plants release fragrance when brushed against by passersby. If you live in a frosty area, you can enjoy it as an annual. You can also pot it up for the winter and keep it in a brightly lit area indoors.
Lemongrass has been used for centuries as the source of an aromatic oil that is used in perfumery, flavorings and herbal medicine. Keep some around the house to add a lemony snap to ice tea and interest to your stir fries. To harvest, dig up a clump, separate the sections, cut off the roots and tops keeping about 6 in (15 cm) of the light colored base.The next time you visit a Thai restaurant I recommend that you try the Tom Yum Goon soup (sometimes Tom Yum Gum and other spellings that I guess are the same dish) for an exotic introduction to this beautiful and useful herb. The length of tan leaf base floating in the soup is the lemongrass - don't eat it because it's unchewable!
I'm not certain if this is true for all dogs, but every one of my Great Danes loves this stuff. If permitted they stand at a clump and chew wads of the young leaf tips for 20 minutes at a time. They enjoy it so much that I finally planted them their own lemongrass clumps in the (futile) hope that they'll leave my more decorative specimens in peace. What the heck - it's probably good for them and gives them slobberingly fresh breath too!
A close cousin of lemongrass, Cymbogon nardus, is the source of citronella oil - the substance that provides the distinctive smell (and punch) to mosquito repellent candles. One of my fondest memories is of my grandmother presiding over family picnics from her lawn chair surrounded by a a galaxy of "bug lights", wreathed in a citronella haze and fly swatter at the ready. Needless to say, no mosquito ventured near - and lived. Citronella candles are currently enjoying a renaissance as a "natural" way or controlling mosquitoes and other pests - try some near your patio.
The leaves have sharp edges and can inflict razor cuts on the unwary! Do not use near walkways where the long leaves might reach out and slice exposed skin.
Steve Christman 10/2/98; updated 5/22/03, 9/11/03, 6/16/04, 4/19/08