Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a culinary and medicinal herb native to Southern India and Sri Lanka. While there are 55 varieties of lemongrass, only two are used in cooking: East Indian Lemongrass (also known as Cochin or Malabar Grass) and West Indian Lemongrass. It’s commonly cultivated in the Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos for use in curries, soups, salads and other regional dishes, but the essential oil can be extracted for use in soaps, lotions, perfumes and deodorants, as well.
Fast-growing and easy to care for, the herb can be a delightful addition to your kitchen garden or home landscape. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Basic Lemongrass Growing Tips
In the garden, lemongrass usually grows 2 to 4 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide, but in tropical areas, it can grow to as tall as 9 feet. As a tropical grass, it’s hardy to USDA hardiness zones 10 to 11, though the roots may be hardy to zone 8. In cooler growing zones, lemongrass is often grown as an annual or can be overwintered indoors in pots.
Lemongrass prefers fertile, loose, well-drained loam soil that is moist but not too wet. It will tolerate average soil if it has enough moisture and good drainage, but does best in soil with a pH of 6 to 7.8. Site it in a location with full sun or at least 6 hours of sun per day.
Like other grasses, lemongrass needs great deal of nitrogen. During the growing season, feed it a half-strength solution of a balanced soluble fertilizer—once per week if in a pot and once per month if in the ground. Non-chemical fertilizers that are high in nitrogen include composted chicken manure, blood meal and feather meal.
Limited Pest and Disease Risks
Because of its high essential-oil concentration, lemongrass is generally pest-free and, in fact, is commonly used as an ingredient in natural insect repellents. Once established, it also outcompetes weeds, though young plants may still require some weeding. Grown indoors, lemongrass is occasionally susceptible to spider mites, though overall, you’ll find this a delightful, easy plant to keep.
Harvesting Lemongrass Stalks
Lemongrass is harvested for both the stalk and foliage. You can begin harvesting lemongrass as soon as the plant is about a foot tall. Cut, twist or break off a stalk that is at least 1/4 inch thick. The most tender part is at the bottom, so remove it as close to the ground as possible. Once you have harvested the number of stalks you want, remove the woody outer portion and the leaves. Save the leaves to dry, or compost them. Slice the tender part of the stalk, and add as needed to your recipe. Extra lemongrass can be refrigerated or frozen.
In colder regions where lemongrass is grown as an annual, harvest the remainder plant in the fall, before the first frost sets in. Cut the foliage down to the lighter-colored stalks, and then cut or break them off, discarding the roots and any discolored portions.
If you harvest more lemongrass than you need for one recipe or you have an ample supply leftover from an end-of-season harvest, you can freeze or dry the stalks and leaves for use throughout the winter.
Freezing Lemongrass Stalks
Lemongrass stalks can be frozen whole or in smaller pieces for about 6 months. For easy use in cooking, portion out the stalks in amounts that you’d use them in your favorite recipes. Place them in a freezer bag or container labeled with the date and amount stored.
Drying Lemongrass Stalks and Leaves
To dry the stalks or leaves, cut them into pieces while the plant is still fresh, as they can become crumbly and difficult to cut when dry. Separate the leaves from the stalks, and lay them on paper towels or on a screen in a dry area out of direct sun. When completely dry, store in a jar in a cool, dark place. Dried lemongrass can be used for up to a year.
Tips for Using Lemongrass
You’ll have just about as much fun using your lemongrass as you will growing it. Here are some suggestions for making it a staple in your kitchen.
- Lemongrass tea: This is the perfect way to use the parts of the lemongrass plant that is not flavorful enough for cooking. Steep a few pieces (cut into 1- or 2-inch lengths) of the fresh or dried leaves and/or outer woody stalks in a cup of boiling water for 5 minutes, or longer if you desire a stronger brew. Add honey or sugar to taste. Lemongrass tea is delicious hot or iced.
- Ginger substitute: Substituting lemongrass for ginger will result a milder flavor profile for any dish.
- Salad topping or garnish: Mince the more tender pieces of the stalk for this purpose.
- Lemon juice substitute: Lemongrass can be used in cream sauces in place of lemon juice, without the risk of the sauce curdling.
- Seasoning for broths, sauces and other dishes: Lemongrass stalks or leaves can be added to any dish that would be enhanced by a mild, lemony flavor. Use it the way a bay leaf would be used, and remove prior to serving.
Medicinal Uses of Lemongrass
Lemongrass is regarded in herbal medicine as a diuretic, mild sedative, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, stomachic, anti-parisitcal and anti-microbial. Both the whole herb and the extracted essential oil have been traditionally used to treat:
- circulatory problems
- sore throats
- bacterial infections
Lemongrass is also used in natural deodorants and insect repellents.
Winter Care of Lemongrass
As a tender, tropical plant, lemongrass will not survive cold temperatures outdoors. It may be treated as an annual, or overwintered indoors. If you’ve grown lemongrass in the ground, you can dig it up before the first frost, cut back the foliage and stalks to just a few inches tall, and plant it in one large pot or into several smaller pots. Keep your potted lemongrass as a houseplant near a bright, sunny window, ideally with southern exposure; in a heated greenhouse; or under artificial lights.
Indoor lemongrass plants will benefit from regular feedings every two weeks, as they will quickly use up the nutrients in the potting soil. Keep the plants moist, but do not overwater them, as potted plants are subject to root rot if the soil remains soggy. The plants can be put back in the ground after the danger of frost has passed.
If you want to increase your lemongrass supply or simply start over production in the spring, you can propagate the plant from a stalk harvested from a plant or purchased from a grocery store or Asian market. Cut the leaves down to about 1 inch above the base of the stalk, and place it in a dish or glass of fresh water—roots do not need to be attached. Set the dish near a sunny window, and change the water daily. After a few days, your stalk should begin to grow roots. In two weeks, if you see good root growth, plant it in soil either outdoors or in a pot.