It's been a long time since I've posted a decent plant profile, and I could think of no plant more interesting to feature than lemongrass. It has a fragrant citrus aroma, has been used in the kitchen for centuries, and it also happens to be a superb addition to the garden! It's so incredibly rewarding to harvest my own lemongrass for tea and pad Thai, and the harvest is all the more exciting because my lemongrass plant thrived under virtually no care at all.
Lemongrass isn't only beautiful, it's useful too!
History and Uses
Lemongrass has been a hot commodity since ancient times, but for its versatile essential oil rather than its culinary talents. Get a load of this: the same oil that yields that excellent lemony flavor is also an effective insect repellent! I'm sure you're familiar with citronella candles, and citronella grass happens to be very closely related to the hero of our story, lemongrass.
The oil is also antiseptic and anti fungal, and can be used to treat athlete's foot, acne and can even improve circulation. Lemongrass tea treats symptoms as varied as headaches, diarrhea, nausea, fever, stomachaches and flu. It's even known as "fever grass" in Jamaica and Trinidad! These claims are backed by the Smithsonian Institution's handbook on herbs, but even if you weren't convinced, a bit of lemongrass in your tea has never been documented to hurt anyone. The hot beverage, on the other hand might scald you.
No substitute for the real thing.
In the Kitchen
The leaves make an excellent tea and can be used in Southeast Asian soups in much the same way that you would use a bay leaf. Simply tie a few of the blades together in a knot, taking care not to cut yourself on the serrated edges, and crush them using your fingers or a rolling pin. Let the leaf bundle (That's what I'm calling it...) steep in water for a soothing tea or include it in a soup or curry and remove it before serving.
To use chopped lemongrass in curries and other savory dishes, remove the outer layers of the bulb-like stalk until you reach the lighter colored tender portion. Finely chop this part of the stem and add to any Thai dish that needs a citrusy tang to balance out the other flavors. Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and Indian dishes with chicken or seafood are especially receptive to the freshly aromatic flavor of lemongrass, but if you experiment a little I'm sure you'll find a place for it in whatever else you have cooking up in your imagination.
If finding lemongrass is an issue, you're not alone. Everything I've read has recommended simply strolling over to the nearest grocery store for a fresh stalk, conveniently in the produce aisle. I have found fresh lemongrass only once in my lifetime, and that was a special offering at a Whole Foods in South Florida. You might find the dried and chopped lemongrass at Asian markets or a sort of paste in the produce aisle, but I wouldn't bother with these impostors. A better idea is to grow your own!
New growth in spring.
See? It looks great even after a freeze.
In the Garden
When I first saw lemongrass, it was growing in poor sandy soil along the drive-through to a dry cleaner. I was taken aback by its architectural form and as I felt the blades between my thumb and forefingers, the scent of citrus was released. I was smitten. I've planted it at my mom's garden (my garden) and my mother in law's garden and have seen success in full sun and partial shade. I tried growing it on my balcony but the full shade made for lanky growth.
Lemongrass is winter hardy in zones eight and up, but I've heard reports of it returning from the ground in zone seven as well. Anywhere north of zone eight will generally want to grow these in large containers where their architectural form can be highlighted. You can cut back the plant to the stalks in winter to save space, letting the plant grow back to its former glory when frosts are no longer a threat.
Garden literature will often tell you that lemongrass likes moist soil. While I'm sure this is true in some situations, after watching two different lemongrass plants rot in wet soil for two consecutive winters, my personal experience has shown otherwise. While they take some moisture to get established, the star specimen of my front garden has sailed through droughts that have stressed out the sedums and liriope. Once lemongrass gets started, be sure to stand back and watch it blast off.
I would grow lemongrass even if it wasn't so yummy and useful, even if only for the wonderful fountain-like form it bestows upon the landscape. I've given mine the spotlight in my front garden where it forms a graceful and statuesque dome in the center of my other plantings. I've repeated the billowing form by using Liriope 'Evergreen Giant', daylilies and agapanthus in the foreground. Even though this is the driest part of the garden, it never fails to look like an oasis.
If you would like to grow your own lemongrass but can't find it offered at your local garden center, you can start it from one of those fabled stalks at the grocery store. Again, I haven't had much luck finding them. Once you get your mitts on a lemongrass stalk, it's fairly easy to root yourself by cutting the stalk in half and planting the rooted end in soil until new leaves emerge. If you'd like to play it on the safe side, root the stalk in water with a tablespoon of activated charcoal to keep the water 'sweet' and to keep the stalk from rotting. Carefully transplant the brittle rooted transplant to soil after it's established, and voila! Free plant.
To harvest lemongrass, remove the stalk at the ground right below the bulbous stalk and cut off the leaves just above the stalk, saving them for use in teas and soups. The stalks and leaves keep fresh for a long time, and will retain the citrus aroma even when dry. I recommend letting your clump of grass get nice and robust before you assault it with the clippers too much, since it would recover more quickly from the injury. Be sure to use a clean knife or heavy duty scissors marketed for kitchen or garden use.
If any of you lemongrass lovers have something to add, or if you're a lemongrass virgin and have a few questions, please leave your two cents in the comment form!