It’s summertime and the living is easy, as long as I have a tall glass of lemon grass and mint iced tea to cut the heat. Fortunately, I grow both mint and lemon grass, so I can make ice tea whenever I want — and you can, too.
Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) gets its fresh, lemony scent from citral oil, the same oil that is found in lemon verbena, lemon balm and, of course, lemons! Thai and Vietnamese cooks harvest sheaths of lemon grass, chop up the tender bases and add them to soups, salads and curries. Lemon grass citral oil is even used in cosmetics like soaps, creams and deodorants.
This evergreen perennial grass comes from India and Ceylon. In our gardens, lemon grass makes a 4- to 6-foot mound of inch-wide, bright green leaves that sometimes take on a purple tinge in the cooler days of winter.
Lemon grass is beautiful and adaptable to almost any garden style: tropical, Asian, Mediterranean or modern. Plants prefer full sun or bright shade, and soil that drains reasonably well. Along the coast, lemon grass is fairly low-water. Inland, though, more water keeps plants looking their best.
Site lemon grass plants with enough room to reach their natural height and width. Fertilize only sparingly if at all, to keep growth under control. These are two key strategies of low-maintenance gardening.
Over time, older leaves turn brown. Simply comb them out by hand (wear gloves; the leaf edges are sharp). If the mound starts to separate in the center, simply dig it up and divide the plant into three or four sections, then replant each one (or give some away).
If you don’t have enough room in the ground, lemon grass does very well in a large container. You might even add some colorful variegated coleus and red- or orange-flowering canna for color. Water regularly through summer.
To harvest lemon grass, find the base of the mound, where you’ll see leaves arranged in bundles. Cut a bundle just below the rounded bottom edge and just above the roots. That tender, fleshy, ivory-colored, rounded base is the part used for cooling. Whatever you don’t cook with, simply steep in boiled water, along with fresh mint leaves, to make aromatic lemonade.
East Indian lemon grass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) also contains the citrusy citral oil but tends to be used in the perfume industry rather than for cooking. Mosquito repelling citronella oil comes from lemon grass cousins, Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus.