This thick-stemmed, dense perennial grass has sharply tapered leaves that emit a strong lemon scent when broken. The name Cymbopogon derives from the Greek words kymbe (boat) and pogon (beard)—a reference to the appearance of the tiny flowers of plants in this genus. Although the precise origin of lemongrass is unknown, scientists believe it could be native to the tropical region of southern India and Sri Lanka, where it has been used for centuries as a treatment for fevers, digestive problems, and nervous conditions.
Common Names: Fever Grass, Lemongrass, West Indian Lemongrass
Description: Clumping tropical grass, 3 to 6 feet tall, with long, linear leaves; small greenish flowers on curving stems; highly aromatic
Hardiness: To Zone 10
Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and oil
Range/Habitat: Possibly native to southern India and Sri Lanka, naturalized in other tropical and subtropical regions
Lemongrass is an integral part of Thai, Vietnamese, and Sri Lankan cuisines. The hearts are eaten as a vegetable with rice, and the chopped leaves are used for sauces, curries, and pastes, as well as in seafood, poultry, and pork dishes. A major source of lemon flavoring and fragrance, lemongrass is used commercially in ice cream, candies, and baked goods. At home, use lemongrass in curries, soups, stews, and seafood dishes — or whenever you want to add a refreshing lemony note to food or beverages without the acidity of lemon juice or lemon peel.
In East India and Sri Lanka, lemongrass tea (called “fever tea”) is traditionally used to reduce fever, and modern herbalists also use the herb for this purpose. Because lemongrass is believed to relax your stomach and intestines, the tea is also used to help relieve flatulence and diarrhea. Lemongrass oil has anti-fungal and antiseptic properties. To treat skin conditions such as ringworm and athlete’s foot, herbalists sometimes recommend a compress of lemongrass oil. You can also apply the leaves directly to your skin to repel insects.
Highly aromatic lemongrass oil is one of the bestselling essential oils in the world. It is used commercially in perfumes, sachets, candles, cosmetics, and bath products. At home, you can infuse bathwater with this soothing herb: Fill a mesh bag with chopped lemongrass leaves, then place the bag under hot running water in your bathtub.
How to grow it
Lemongrass thrives in tropical and subtropical climates in well-drained, fertile soil in full sun. In cold climates, you can try to root lemongrass clumps sold in Asian markets. Place a clump in a shallow container filled with about 1 inch of water. Several weeks later, after roots have formed, plant the lemongrass in a pot filled with a medium rich in organic matter. Or plant it directly in your garden, if all danger of frost has passed. Water regularly. Be sure to bring this tropical species indoors before the first frost, and you can enjoy it all winter. Harvest the bulb and leaves for cooking, or use the leaves to make a soothing tea. To propagate, divide and replant lemongrass roots in spring.
Soothing Lemony Tea
When is a lemon a grass? When it is Cymbopogon citratus, a dense perennial grass found in the Philippines and other tropical regions of the world. Pull up a clump of this grass, close your eyes, and crush the leaves—a wonderful, pleasing, lemony aroma is released. Traditionally, people have made a hot tea from the leaves (sometimes along with the roots) for the treatment of fevers, coughs, and colds. The root was also mashed in local vegetable oil and used to massage sore backs and muscle spasms, as well as rubbed on the forehead to treat headaches.
To make the tea, steep a few crushed leaves in hot water for 5 minutes, allow the tea to cool, and enjoy this caffeine-free beverage. It will promote digestion and help you relax. If you can’t grow this species outdoors, you can always find the leaves for sale at local ethnic markets or supermarkets—it is widely used in Thai cooking.
Lemongrass is closely related to one of the best-known plant-based insect repellents, citronella oil, which is derived from the leaves and stems of Cymbopogon nardus.