The Grass with Zest: Lemongrass

Lemongrass

Cymbopogon citratus

When I first moved to Arizona about two decades ago, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that lemongrass could grow here. A gourmet item in specialty groceries is what I had assigned lemongrass to in my brain and never thought of it as a plant I would eventually grow myself. The first clump I saw was in phoenix, in full sun: a huge clump that severely needed dividing. Well…I was happy to help remove a few clumps to help, unbeknownst to the person who owned the plant (and really wasn’t watering or feeding it correctly anyway). If you have a neighbor like this, they won’t even notice you taking a clump, trust me.

Lemongrass, as found in the market.

Even when you abuse lemongrass, it grows like madness. But when you give it what it needs: nice garden soil, a break from summer afternoon sun, mulch, food…it thrives and produces the nice quality stems called for in Thai food and other cuisines of Southeast Asia. Feed occasionally with fish emulsion, kelp, compost tea, or any organic fertilizer. If the soil is decent, and drains, your plant will be beautiful and almost uncontrollable.

These unearthed clumps are ready to plant individually.

Frost will make plants look horrible. Cover when the temperatures dip below freezing. In winter plants may take on a brownish look anyway because this is a tropical plant (most likely native to Malaysia) and doesn’t love our cool winters. In full sun, plants can look beat-up too, though I have seen some well-cultivated specimens in full sun without a blemish. The important part is good planting and care. And with a little protection in winter, you should have lemongrass as long as you are willing to care for it.

Pulling out stems is intuitive and easy: use as you need. When plants begin to look crowded, pull the plant up, divide culms, and give some away. You will eventually be the neighborhood source for lemongrass, as it grows fast and furious. Plants that get crowded begin to look ratty. The freshest, most edible stems are always the turgid ones with plenty of contact with the soil, near the edge.

Another similar species, Cymbopogon flexuosus, also called Cochin Grass or Malabar Grass, is native to Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Burma,and Thailandis and is suitable for the same use. Johnny’s Selected Seed has both species. Trade Winds Fruit carries seed of Cymbopogon martinii, called palmerosa which is a related species used to make essential oil. Citronella, a lemon-like essential oil used to repel mosquitos and other insects, comes from various species of Cymbopogon.

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