Fiann Ó Nualláin is impressed with this fragrant plant that is both ornamental and useful.
Thereare around 55 species of lemongrass native to Asia and warmer climate regions. Many have come to be cultivated around the world as ornamental plants as well as culinary herbs utilised fresh in cooking, dried as a spice and, in either form, as a flavouring in herbal tea and cordials.
The two most utilised for spice and tea are West-Indian lemongrass (C. citratus) and East-Indian lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus).
The leaf and stem of these members of the Poaceae (grass) family do taste and smell of lemon. I grow some on my kitchen windo sill both as a fragrant houseplant and as ascissor-snip spice.
How to grow
Lemongrass is easily propagated from stems bought in local supermarket or vegetable shop — in the same way, you can start a clump of scallions from a single scallion. Simply pot it up and water well, leave on a sunny windowsill and it will root in a matter of days.
Alternatively you can lean the stems in a jam jar or drinking glass with a smallportion of water at the base to encourage root development before potting on.
Lemongrass can be grown as a kitchen plant or houseplant but it will benefit from summer exposure. Place it outside over summer to really catch the rays and strengthen its volatile oils and flavour molecules. Bring back inside before autumn chills and even cut hard back to rejuvenate for an overwintering window sill or conservatory placement.
Currently, lemongrass in pots is not a garden-centre staple yet — you can be adventurous and purchase seeds and sow on a warm windowsill or in a polytunnel.
It is best sown thinly on the surface of pre-moistened compost and gently firmed into place. It needs both heat and humidity to germinate so pop inside a clear plastic cover or heated propagator — preferable at 20C to 22C or lid with glass.
Seed can be a little erratic, with anything from 21 to 40 days before successfulgermination.
Lemongrass is often popularly known to as “fever grass” — a reference to its diaphoretic (inducing perspiration) and febrifuge (fever-reducing) effects and one that stretches back to some of the oldest healing systems including its appearance in in Ayurvedic and Chinese medical systems to treat fevers, viral and virulent infections.
It is often traditionally used as a pleasant tea that can be made from fresh foliage, clipped straight from the plant and drunk warm or cooled to be chilled as an iced tea.
It is a culinary spice and we can include it in a stir-fry or other meals as we might with garlic, ginger, turmeric and other important medicinally valuable spices.
Bear in mind, it can overpower a meal, so a snip is often enough. Those shop-bought stalks are stronger than your windowsill snips as there is a lot of strength in the basal stems.
Lemongrass has a reputation for being analgesic, immune-stimulant, antidepressant and a good digestive.
The main plant chemicals responsible for that lemony component are citral, citronellol and limonene — all three have strong antimicrobial and antifungal properties used to quell gastric upset, remedy skin complaints and also to deter insects.
I use lemongrass to make a spray for the greenhouse and the home if any fruit flies or greenflies make their way in. It is more of a scent deterrent than anything else —confusing those pests as to what’s actually growing there. Lemongrass is also popular as a mosquito or other biting insect deterrent. Its aroma masks the fragrance of the protein in your blood that those insects want to dine on.
A spritz of the cooled tea is helpful but if off canoeing up the Amazon or trekking the Tropics I’d be going for the stronger essential oil to perfume my clothing.
So while that lemon flavour is a culinary treat, it is amazing how so many lemon-fragranced plants have a healing application — those lemony molecules just seem to be strong medicine.
The interest has moved beyond local lore and herbalism and into mainstream medicine and scientific survey. Isolated citral and limonene in recent years has reportedly been of great interest to cancer researchers — limonene is said to stimulate white blood-cell production and is reported to inhibit the growth of the cancer cells.
Citral is said to induce apoptosis (self-destruction) in several cancer cell lines.
That said, citral is oestrogenic, so be careful if you have oestrogen dominance. That oestrogenic action has seen lemongrass tea garner a long history in treating PMS and menopause in women and enlarged prostate in men.
Citral in the human system acts as a detox device to stimulate lymph and circulation and aid in the removal of fats, toxins and uric acid from the body, the latter said to be of benefit for treating arthritis and gout.
Citral is also reported to inhibit damage to chromosomes. The vitamin C content and other antioxidant constituents of the lemongrass plant could help disarm quite a lot of free-radical damage also. Lemongrass is making its way into skin and hair treatments as a cosmeceutical.
Lemongrass and other lemony herbs’ flavour molecules of citral, myrcene and citronellol are also said to exert energising and uplifting effects.