Great Tips to Grow Lemongrass

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Lemongrass is an herb belonging to the grass family, growing as a perennial in zones 10 to 11 and as an annual in colder climates
  • The herb, a popular addition to soups, stews and stir-fry foods, may be started in water on a sunny windowsill before planting, using plants purchased at the grocery store
  • The most common disease affecting the plant is fungus, which may be prevented with appropriate mulching, watering and pruning
  • Benefits include help for insomnia and pain, improved insulin sensitivity, antibacterial activity and hair health; do a patch test before applying essential oil or infusion to your skin or scalp. I don’t recommend use of the oil in children, pregnant or nursing mothers or those with liver or kidney disease or other health conditions

By Dr. Mercola

Cymbopogon citratus, commonly known as lemongrass, is an herb noted for its distinctive lemon flavor and citrus aroma. Lemongrass may be grown as a perennial in zones 10 to 11. In these climates lowest temperatures reach approximately 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.1 In cooler areas lemongrass is grown as an annual, but may be planted in a pot and brought indoors in the winter months.

The herb is among the most popular of essential oils and is native to tropical countries such as India, China and Thailand, where it is a favorite flavoring in foods, drinks and desserts.2 The plant has also been used traditionally for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. A common theory attributes the success of lemongrass essential oil in part to the citronella essential oil display at the World's Fair in 1951.

Lemongrass was initially introduced to warm regions in the United States, but can be grown throughout the country as an annual plant. In food and beverages it is often used for flavoring, and in manufacturing lemongrass may be added as a fragrance to soaps and cosmetics. You can take advantage of the many health benefits associated with this flavorful plant by including it in your garden during the summer and even bringing it indoors in the winter.

Lemongrass Grows Indoors and Out

Lemongrass is easy to start and root as demonstrated in the featured video. Although you can purchase the plants at your local gardening shop, it's also easy to start your own from lemongrass purchased at the grocery store. The plant does best when started in early spring.3 As demonstrated in the video, locate the lower half of the plant and trim approximately 6 inches above this point. The top half can be used dried in tea or in your compost pile while the bottom half is placed in approximately 3 inches of water.

Once you've trimmed the number of stalks you wish to start, add just a dash of cinnamon as a root starter and place the cup in a sunny window. Change the water every couple of days to prevent the growth of fungus4 and wait patiently for the roots and leaves to start growing. It may take between three and four weeks before the plant will be ready to be anchored in the ground or planted in a pot. Once the leaves begin to pop out of the stem, you may want to add some liquid fertilizer to give the plant nutrients.

Consider making your own by using grass clippings and weeds from your yard if you don't use pesticide treatments.5 Using a 5-gallon bucket, fill it two-thirds of the way with fresh grass clippings and some organic banana peels.

Add water and let it steep for three days, stirring several times throughout the day. Strain out the solid pieces and mix what's left with equal parts of water in a 1-to-1 ratio. Add several drops of this mixture to your lemongrass starter plants. Consider using the remaining natural fertilizer on your indoor and outdoor plants.

Lemongrass prefers full sun and appreciates rich and loamy soil. The plant requires regular watering depending upon the type of soil in your garden. Looser soils will require more frequent watering but loam soil will retain moisture longer and won't need to be irrigated as frequently.6 By sticking your finger in the soil you'll be able to tell how dry it is and how often you might need to water. Adding a thick layer of organic mulch will enhance water retention and slowly add nutrients into the soil as the mulch degrades.

When your plants have plenty of sun, water and fertilizer, they may grow as high as 6 feet and 4 feet wide, depending upon your variety. It's a good idea to keep them pruned at a manageable size to encourage new growth and to allow all the leaves to receive sunlight.7

The best time to trim is early spring, but as the plant is very forgiving it may be pruned during the summer months if growth has gotten out of control. If your lemongrass is a perennial plant in your garden, wait until spring before pruning as the plant is dormant in the winter. Although it may look extreme to cut off all the brown leaves with the initial pruning, it won't be long before fresh green growth takes its place.

Don't Let Fungus Claim Your Plants

Fungus is the most common disease found in lemongrass. Early blight, late blight and rust are caused by fungus, coloring the foliage and potentially resulting in plant death.8 Fungus survives over the winter in plant debris and weeds, so it's important to remove debris from around your plants and cover well with organic mulch before winter. Early blight causes brown concentric rings, while late blight causes greasy, greenish, black spots to develop on the lower leaves. Rust disease causes rust colored spots on the foliage and stems.

The best management for fungal disease is to promote vigorous growth by using mulches and organic fertilizers to stimulate growth, while pruning out diseased areas.9 Severe infection may result in the death of the entire plant. Rust spores are able to survive on the ground, then spread by the wind, rain and water splashing. Avoid overhead irrigation whenever possible to reduce the spread of fungal disease.10 The most common times the disease is spread is during high rainfall, high humidity and warm temperatures.11

Lemongrass may also be attacked by aphids, spider mites and whiteflies. Aphids are small, sucking insects that feed on the underside of the leaves and leave a sticky residue on the foliage12 that attracts ants. Spider mites are tiny spider-like pests the size of a grain of pepper. These insects inject toxins into the foliage resulting in small white dots. You may also find webbing on the plants. They multiply quickly and thrive in dry conditions.

Spider mites and aphids may be controlled using a forceful spray of water and dish soap every other day.13 Whiteflies are small, white flying insects you may observe rising in a cloud when the plant is disturbed or brushed. Although they don't leave marks, they weaken the plant with constant feeding.14

Whiteflies may leave a sticky substance on the underside of the leaves, attracting ants and causing greater damage to the plant. Whiteflies may be controlled with lacewing larvae or lady beetles attracted by flowers planted in the vicinity. Many strains of whiteflies are resistant to pesticides, but their predators are not. You may accidentally kill beneficial insects and leave a strong growth of whiteflies if you attempt to use pesticides. Consider trying:15

  • Aluminum reflective mulch as it makes it difficult for the insect to find host plants.
  • Yellow sticky traps to monitor and collect whiteflies. Make your own using a 1-to-1 ratio of petroleum jelly and dishwashing soap spread over small bright yellow boards.
  • A small vacuum is the best way to remove flies, nymphs and larvae from the plants.

Plant, Divide and Eat!

Lemongrass contains citronella, an oil with pest repelling properties.16 Plantings along your patio are an excellent way to naturally repel mosquitoes. You may also try snapping off a leaf or two and cover your skin with the natural oils directly from the plant to protect yourself from mosquito bites. Test a small area of your skin first to ensure you aren't sensitive to the oil.

While beautiful in your garden, lemongrass also offers benefits to companion plants.17 Herb containers or close plantings in the garden may include cilantro, basil, echinacea and thyme. Each of these herbs enjoy the same full sun and water requirements. Lemongrass may also be visually appealing among your tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos, which also prefer the same growing conditions.

As the name implies, lemongrass is a member of the grass family, and as such grows quickly each successive year.18 Potted plants will especially need to be divided each year so they don't outgrow their pot. When dividing your plants, ensure they have at least 1 inch of root attached so you are able to anchor the plant directly into the soil. Before dividing plants, cut the foliage to 2 inches above the ground to ensure better management.19

It is easiest to dig the plants up with a shovel and divide it into 6-inch sections. You can plant these divisions 3 feet apart in the ground, allowing for vigorous growth as the grasses expand. Harvesting is simple and can pretty much be done anytime throughout the growing season. The edible part of the plant is nearest the bottom of the stalk, which is where you'll want to snap or cut the lemongrass. Look for stalks between a quarter-inch and half-inch thick and cut as close to the root as possible.20

After harvest, remove and throw out the woody portion of the stalk.21 The foliage can be dried and used for teas and soups. You may wish to cook the stalk slightly and then crush the woody portion to get to the edible tender part inside. Harvest as much of the plant as possible prior to winter and consider freezing what you don't use immediately.

Fresh lemongrass will last in the refrigerator for up to two weeks when it's wrapped in a damp paper towel. Although you may pick lemongrass to be used right away, in the fall you may choose to freeze some plants to use during the winter months. To freeze, wash it, trim it and then chop it up. It can be frozen immediately in a small amount of water in ice cube trays and then transferred to a tempered glass jar designed for your freezer.22

Benefits of Lemongrass in Cooking and Oils

As with many herbs, there are a significant number of health benefits to using lemongrass. Traditionally, lemongrass has been used to treat stomach aches, high blood pressure, common cold, convulsions, pain and vomiting.23 The plant confers a strong lemon flavor to food and is often used in Indian and Asian cooking as well as tea.

The refreshing scent also makes lemongrass a valuable aroma therapeutic oil. The scent is clean and calming and helps relieve stress, anxiety, irritability and insomnia.24 Lemongrass essential oil may also help relax and tone your muscles as well as relieve muscle pain, period cramps and headaches. Other benefits to the oil include:

Energizing foot massage or soak

Perk up tired feet with a foot soak using two drops of lemongrass essential oil with 2 tablespoons of Epsom salts in a bowl of warm water.25 Create your own foot massage oil with 1 ounce of diluted lemongrass oil, 1 ounce of sweet almond oil, one drop pure geranium oil and two drops of pure sandalwood essential oil. Store in a dark bottle in a cool, dry place.

Antibacterial

Lemongrass essential oil has anti-biofilm properties against staphylococcus aureus26 and interrupts the growth of bacteria in the body.27

Gastrointestinal

Lemongrass has demonstrated effects against E. coli28 and H. pylori,29 the latter of which is responsible for the formation of stomach ulcers. It has also demonstrated effectiveness in stimulating digestion and regulating bowel function.30

Sleep

Sedative and hypnotic properties of the plant may increase duration of your sleep.31 Consider a cup of lemongrass tea before bed.

Analgesic

Pain killing properties of the essential oil and tea make it useful in the treatment of headaches, muscle and joint pain, muscle spasms and sprains.

Blood glucose

The citral present in lemongrass has demonstrated ability to regulate blood glucose and improve insulin sensitivity.32 However, using the oil may also lead to lowered blood glucose, and may have contraindications for people taking oral diabetes or antihypertensive medications, as well as those who are diabetic and hypoglycemic.

Take special precautions if you have been diagnosed with diabetes or hypoglycemia or if anyone in your family suffers these conditions.

Hair health

If you're struggling with oily hair, but would still like your hair shiny and manageable, try adding a few drops of diluted essential oil to your scalp and rinse.33

Body odor

Lemongrass has natural antifungal and antibacterial properties, making a diluted form of the essential oil a natural deodorant.

Safety Precautions Using Lemongrass Oil Infusions

Lemongrass essential oil is made using steam distillation, but if you have lemongrass growing in your backyard, you can make an oil infusion using another carrier oil. Find a simple recipe for this in my previous article, "Lemongrass Oil Can Lighten Up Your Mood and More."

While the oil is considered generally safe when used in small quantities and properly blended with a carrier oil, undiluted oil may actually burn or injure your skin as it has a high citral content. I advise doing a patch test before applying lemongrass oil to your skin to see if you have any adverse reactions to the essential oil. Ingestion of herbal tea may also result in an allergic reaction.

It is always advisable to keep any essential oils out of the reach of children. I do not recommend using lemongrass oil on children, during pregnancy, if you are trying to conceive or are breastfeeding. Those with liver or kidney disease and other health conditions should also consult their physician before using lemongrass essential oil or infusion.

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