When we think of herbs, usually culinary uses come to mind first. We generally learn about other values later. Lemongrass is a fine example and the name fits. You can’t miss the lemon scent.
Lemongrass contains chemicals used to repel mosquitoes. Many people even confuse citronella grass for lemongrass. The essential oils are extracted the same way and the aroma is somewhat similar. Stem bases of citronella grass are somewhat reddish while they are faint green on lemongrass. Lemongrass stems are often red though.
Lemongrass is an herb I always associate with aromatherapy and medicinal uses. However, it’s also a delectable cooking herb. Its upright flowing growth habit makes it a good fit in many ornamental situations. So where do we start?
Let’s first discuss how to grow it. Lemongrass is a hardy annual or tender perennial, depending upon your perspective. It’s marginally hardy in zone 8. Elizabeth City is zone 8. That said, I think we have to consider it an annual here, much like purple fountain grass.
Lemongrass will achieve heights of six feet when plants live through the winter. It’s likely to grow about half that when it needs to be planted from seedlings every year. Another option is to dig some clumps of it, cut them back and keep them as houseplants in a sunny window in the winter. More or less let them remain dormant, only watering to keep the soil somewhat moist.
Plants require full sun and they thrive in the heat. Flowering would be extremely rare in our area as plants bloom late. Fall frosts would have already caused them to go dormant.
This herb grows best in well-drained soils, but it tolerates lots of moisture. In fact, it requires adequate water for rapid growth. When in active growth lemongrass benefits from adequate nitrogen too.
Lemongrass is great in marinades, especially for fish. Young tender leaves or stem bases seem to work best. Leaves are also great to season items on the grill. Some folks use it in stir-fry. Still others make a lemon tea from the leaves or stem bases. I’m only scratching the surface here. Culinary uses abound.
Medicinally, Lemongrass is used for treating digestive system problems, high blood pressure, convulsions, vomiting, cough, arthritis, fever and exhaustion. It also has antimicrobial properties. Some people use essential oil preparations externally to control muscle pain and headache.
Lemongrass essential oil is used as aromatherapy to treat muscle pain and the common cold. Aroma therapists claim it reduces stress, lessens insomnia and relieves general pain. The essential oil is also used in perfumes, soaps and many other general hygiene products.
I probably get more questions about the effectiveness of lemongrass, citronella and many of the scented geraniums as mosquito and tick repellants than any other use. I’m still not totally sold. Yes, they certainly have value, but plant concentration must be high.
Frequent retreatment is necessary to keep these critters away. Continued research will likely improve that. One thing is for sure. The pleasing scent is better than any of the repellants on the market.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).