Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Lemongrass

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), also spelled as lemon grass, is not native to North America. Its original home was India but it spread throughout Asia, Africa, Australia, and many tropical islands, where it became a staple in cuisine. It is particularly familiar to us from Thai and Vietnamese cooking, and it has also become a fairly commonplace plant in many American gardens, like mine.

I got my start of lemongrass almost ten years ago when I was working as a volunteer at the Montgomery County Master Gardeners' test garden. That spring, I was helping to clear out the herb garden and there was a large clump of the grass there that needed to be divided. The Master Gardener in charge of herbs divided the clump into many different sections, some of which would be sold at our plant sale, and she gave each of her helpers who wanted it a sprig for their own gardens. I brought mine home and planted it where it pretty quickly grew into a substantial mass that was about three feet tall and just as wide. That clump has since been divided and I now have three large stands of lemongrass in my backyard. Next spring, I'll be dividing all three clumps once again and adding it to more beds in my garden. (Every gardener is familiar with the concept of multiplication by division!)

Lemongrass makes an attractive plant that is very pleasant to observe as the breezes pass through it, shaking its long leaves. In addition to its well-known culinary uses, it has utility as an insect repellent especially for mosquitoes. Antithetically, oil from the plant is also used to attract one insect - honeybees. Apparently, it emulates a pheromone exuded by the bees and so is useful in facilitating the trapping of swarms.

In fact, oil from lemongrass has many uses in soaps, sprays, candles, and aromatherapy. Also, in the garden, intercropping the lemongrass plants with vegetables like tomatoes and broccoli can help to protect them from insect damage without having to use pesticides.  

Lemongrass is a perennial and so it comes back year after year, the clumps getting bigger with each year's growth. Here in zone 9a, I leave it in the ground over winter. It dies back to the roots and then comes back strong in the spring. In late winter, I cut back last year's growth so that the new growth will have full rein. In colder areas, it would be necessary to pot some of the plant and bring it inside during the winter in order to protect it.  

Lemongrass in October, with just a few leaves beginning to turn brown. Most of it will stay green until our first frost when the plant will go dormant.

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