I took advantage of a recent sunny day to check out the backyard and see what it looked like after our long string of freezing nights. Many plants looked pretty bad. I was pleased, however, to see that my lemon grass, Cymbopogon citratus, has made it so far. It sustained some damage but there are still definitely green stalks deep inside the clump.
I have always enjoyed growing herbs and a few years ago discovered lemon grass. I put it in a small pot and it sputtered along for a few years, never doing much. Then I spoke with a woman who told me it was easy to grow, but I needed to put it in the ground. I decided to plant it in my raised bed and it has done well, quadrupling in size.
However, when it was in a small pot, I could pull it under the patio cover during the winter. Being out in the raised bed, it has been on its own this winter.
Lemon grass is thought to have originated in India and is referred to as a tender perennial. Sunset Western Garden Book advises using it in Zones 12, 13,16,17,23 and 24. Remember that Fairfield is Zone 14 so I am taking a little gamble here that it will survive the winter.
It’s not really a big gamble, as come springtime this plant will be available in many nurseries. Also, several Internet sources mentioned that lemon grass stalks available for purchase in the grocery store will frequently root if kept in a glass of water for two to three weeks. So if my plant succumbs this winter, it will be easy to replace.
Lemon grass likes moist, rich soil, but does not like to be water-logged. It likes full sun and lots of water. To be honest, I gave mine moderate water, but made sure it was heavily mulched. Its greatest time of growth is in the summertime, so that is also when it needs the most fertilizer.
The books say that in its favored habitat, the plant can grow to 10 feet. In our area, three to four feet tall and three feet wide would probably be the maximum. The leaves are one-half to one inch wide.
To keep lemon grass in top shape or to make more plants, the older clump can be divided and then the separate divisions replanted. Once you try this plant, you are sure to want more, either for yourself or to share. Lemon grass is not bothered by many pests or diseases.
Lemon grass has, as you may have guessed, a wonderful lemony scent. Its peeled, bruised, lower stalks are used in Asian and Caribbean cooking in sauces, soups and marinades. Its stalks and leaves are sometimes used alone in teas or combined with green tea.
An essential oil commercially extracted from the plant is used extensively in the perfume and cosmetic industries. Research studies have shown this oil to have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties according to National Geographic Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine by Steven Foster and Rebecca L. Johnson. Lemon grass oil is also an insect repellant like its first cousin citronella.
All in all, a very useful plant to have in the garden.
Karen Metz is a Master Gardener with University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener office at 784-1322.