Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citrates) is one of the staple ingredients in Asian cuisine, where it is used in everything from soups and curries to green teas. Lemongrass is a frost-tender perennial which can grow up to six feet tall and spread two-three feet wide. Its long, thin bright green leaves are packed with a dense citrus flavour. The stalk and leaves both contain a very distinct and strong aromatic oil called citral, which smells like — you guessed it — lemons!
Now that lemony smell isn’t just refreshing, it also keeps away those tiny blood-sucking terrors we call mosquitoes. While some feel that simply planting lemongrass is enough, the real mosquito-repelling benefit comes from its essential oil, which can work as an effective replacement for commercial insect repellents.
That’s not all. If you are someone who values organic over chemical health and beauty products, lemongrass is just what you need. Lemongrass essential oil is known for its antiseptic and revitalising properties. It’s a perfect natural toner for your skin. It improves circulation, tones muscles, cures acne and neutralises oily skin.
Its diuretic properties promote digestion, remove excess water and toxins from the body and reduce swelling. Being an effective astringent, lemongrass strengthens the contraction of gums and hair follicles resulting in stronger teeth and less hairfall. In case of injuries, it helps in clotting blood quickly.
Lemongrass is valued for its antipyretic (fever-reducing) properties too. A few cups of lemongrass tea can bring down even high fevers. Essential lemongrass oils and teas can also help you recover from depression by uplifting the spirit thanks in no small part to its smell. It helps relieve muscular pains too.
Besides this, lemongrass oil also assists in treating nervous disorders such as shaking hands or limbs, and lack of reflexes by strengthening and activating nerves.
There is good news for lactating mothers. Apart from the innumerable reasons to include lemongrass in your diet, lemongrass oil is also a popular galactagogue agent that not only improves the quality of milk produced but also increases the quantity. However, you must not consume lemongrass if you know you are pregnant because it can lead to a miscarriage.
Growing lemongrass in your garden
Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of how to grow this miracle plant.
Lemongrass is hard to germinate from seed but if you are able to get a few seedlings through germination you should be more than happy!
Spread the seeds in a small container filled with sand and compost (70:30) and cover lightly with moist compost. Seal the pot with a plastic bag to maintain the moisture and to control the temperature. With a steady temperature of 20-22 degrees Centigrade, the seeds will germinate in 25-40 days. Fluctuating temperature will result in poor or failed germination.
When the seedlings are large enough to handle, transfer them to individual pots and keep them in partial shade. Since these are tropical plants, they will grow best in moist soil in a sunny spot. Gradually introduce your plants to full sun.
Divide and rule
Personally, I have never grown lemongrass from seeds. Instead, once a year, I divide the plants to propagate them. You can do the same by buying a plant from a nursery. My plant was a present from a friend and it turned out to be one of the best growing plants in my garden. The best time to propagate your plants by dividing is in early spring or autumn. The plant can be separated and replanted as soon as it has developed strong roots. To divide them, carefully remove the entire plant from its pot and shake it gently to loosen the soil but do not remove it all. Carefully separate a stem along with its roots from the others and replant it. Take care of the new plant by watering it and keeping it under partial shade for a few weeks.
Lemongrass can be grown in pots or as a border in your garden. They will love a 12-14 inch container and occasional feed or organic compost. The plants are insect repellents themselves and because of that they are virtually pest-free.
Harvesting and beyond
Summers will bring flowers to lemongrass that will soon produce hundreds of seeds that you can save. Once your plant is three months old, you can start harvesting its leaves by cutting them from the bottom, just near the stem.
You can use them fresh or dry and you can store them in airtight containers to use later.
Freeze your herbs instead of drying
Drying is a classic way to store herbs for later use while preserving the flavour and aroma. However, classic drying means that you will lose the colour. Well, this handy technique lets you preserve the colour as well!
Pick fresh leaves of lemongrass, rinse properly and chop into one inch pieces. Fill your ice cube trays with water and add a few cuttings in each. Most herbs (especially mint) look attractive frozen in an ice-cube and can even be used to add zing to a cold drink.
You can also store lemongrass by making small packets of the herb using butter paper and freezing it in an air tight container.
Every garden should have this fantastic plant that tastes and smells like lemon, cures uncountable illnesses, makes skin beautiful, reduces fat, makes teeth stronger and hair stunning, soothes senses, repels insects and makes the garden greener!
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 2nd, 2011.