Growing Lemongrass

Also known as Fever grass, Bhustrina and Takrai. From the family Poaceae.

This important culinary and medicinal herb, which can be found throughout the tropics, is indigenous to Southeast Asia where it is used extensively to produce an essential oil. It is also a snake repellent and a versatile garden plant. There are records showing that the Persians were using it as a tea in the first century B.C. I have been lucky enough to see it growing and flowering naturally in the Caribbean {Jamaica} where they primarily use it for reducing fevers.

VARIETIES:

Cymbopogon citratus: Lemon Grass

Half-hardy perennial, evergreen in warm climates. Height 4 1/2 ft. Spread 3 feet. Lax panicles of awnless spikelets appear throughout the summer. However, it rarely flowers in cold climates. Lemon-scented linear, gray/green leaves up to 3 feet in length. Robust creamy/beige cane-like stems. Zone 9.

Cymbopogon nardus: Citronella Grass

Half-hardy perennial, evergreen in warm climates. Height 5 feet and spread 3 feet. Lax panicles of awnless spikelets appear throughout the summer. However, it rarely flowers in cold climates. Lemon-scented drooping, flat, blue/gray/green leaves up to 2 feet in length. This species is cultivated for its medicinal and insect-repellent properties. It is also grown around buildings in Africa as a snake repellent. The oil is used to perfume soaps. Zone 9.

Cymbopogon martini var. motia: Palmarosa, Rosha, Indian Geranium

Half-hardy perennial, evergreen in warm climates. Height 4 1/2 feet and spread 3 feet. Lax panicles of awnless spikelets appear throughout the summer. However, it rarely flowers in cold climates. Rose-scented linear gray/green leaves up to 20 inches in length. The oil made from this species is used to perfume cosmetics and soap. It is also used in Ayurveda medicine to treat fevers and infectious diseases. Zone 9.

CULTIVATION:

Propagation –

Seed – In spring, sow seeds into prepared seed or module plug trays and place under protection at 68 degrees {20 C}. Germination takes 15-25 days. Once the seedlings are large enough, pot using a loam-based compost and grow until well established. Either plant in the garden in warm climates or, in cool climates, grow as a container plant.

Cuttings – Take cuttings, in spring from a plant that is more than a year old, which has an established crown. Gently remove the swollen lower stems from the crown. Remove any grass from the stem and cut the stem back to 4 inches. Place in a prepared module plug tray or a very small pot using a seed compost; do not be tempted to over pot the cuttings as this will cause it to rot. Place under protection or in a warm position away from cold drafts. Once rooted, pot into a small pot using a loam-based compost.

Division: –  In the garden use two forks back to back and gently tease the plant apart, replanting immediately into a prepared site. Divide container plants either with your fingers or two small forks, teasing the crown apart, re-potting into a pot which fits snugly around the roots. This plant is happiest when pot bound. Use a loam-based potting compost.

PESTS AND DISEASE:

Outside the tropics, this herb can be prone to rot and mildew. To prevent this, in winter, keep container grown plants nearly dry and in a well-ventilated, frost-free room.

MAINTENANCE:

Spring – Sow seeds. Divide or take root cuttings of established plants. Feed container-raised plants regularly.

Summer – Do not allow the plants to dry out. Maintain feeding until late summer.

Fall – In cool climates, to prevent disease, cut back the grass leaving the stems.

Winter – Protect from frost. Keep watering to the minimum.

GARDEN CULTIVATION:

Lemongrass can be grown outside where the night temperature does not fall below 48 degrees {8 C}. Plant in any soil, including a heavy soil, as long as the summers are hot and wet and the winds are warm and dry. In low light levels, the plant can become dormant. In spring, prune back all the old growth and thick stalks to 4 inches.

HARVESTING:

The fresh leaves and lower stems can be cut throughout the summer to use fresh or to dry. The stems can be stored whole in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for up to 2 weeks. Alternatively, the stems and the leaves can be frozen for use within 5 months.

CONTAINER GROWING:

An excellent container plant. Use a loam-based compost which should not be allowed to dry out in summer. In winter, bring the plant into a frost-free environment of 40 degrees {5 C} minimum. When the light levels and night temperatures drop the plant will go “dormant,” the grass gradually turns brown and the outside leaves shrivel. Reduce the watering to a minimum and cut back the grass to 4 inches above the stems. In early spring, as the day lengthens and the temperatures rise you will notice new grass starting to grow. Cut off all dead growth, repot if necessary and liquid feed weekly.

MEDICINAL, OTHER USES, AND A WARNING:

A tea made from fresh leaves is very refreshing as well as being a stomach and gut relaxant. It is also a good anti-depressant and helps lift the spirits if you are in a bad mood. The essential oil is antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal and deodorizing.

Valued for its exotic citrus fragrance, it is commercially used in soaps, perfumes and as an ingredient in sachets. Also used as an insect repellent.

Do not take the essential oil internally without supervision.