Everyone loves herbs and spices, but they’re becoming more and more expensive these days. Yet some herbs don’t have to strain the wallet and can be grown in a container or your own backyard.
Lemongrass is a perfect example of this, and the term applies to an entire genus in the Poaceae (AKA grass) family. One species is Cymbopogon citratus (sim-buh-POH-gon sit-TRAH-tus), better known as West Indian lemongrass.
Sometimes also referred to as citronella grass, fever grass, or lemongrass, this Sri Lanka native is a very popular edible grass that can be grown either as an annual or perennial.
Cymbopogon Citratus Care
Size And Growth
This species of lemongrass has coarse, tapered straplike leaves that grow up to 3′ feet long and .5” to 1” inch wide at the base.
It forms clumps up to 6′ feet in diameter, making it less attractive than ornamental grasses but far from ugly. In fact, the leaves can be quite attractive, with a pale blue-green coloration and a graceful droop near the tips.
As with all lemongrass, the leaves give off a strong lemony scent, especially if bruised.
However, the leaves are finely serrated and can break skin if handled roughly, so be careful when working with the plant.
Flowering And Fragrance
You’re not likely to see this plant bloom if it’s grown indoors, under glass, or as an annual.
However, when grown outside as a perennial, it will occasionally send up a stalked cluster of green and pinkish-brown flowers from late summer into fall.
Light And Temperature
Cymbopogon citratus is a hardy species that thrives in full sun, even in harsher climates. It can tolerate partial shade but needs at least 6 hours of full sun daily to thrive.
Indoors, the plant will accept bright, indirect sunlight or full exposure in the morning or evening.
Remember, window panes amplify the sun’s strength, so it’s not always a good idea to put a sun-loving plant in a southern window.
One thing to keep in mind is that this plant prefers higher humidity levels, despite being somewhat drought-hardy.
Outdoors, there’s not much you can do outside of grouping plants or providing partial shade during the hottest day.
However, when growing indoors, you can increase the humidity using a pebble tray or humidifier.
A range of 40% to 70% percent works well, but a moderate 50% to 60% percent is perfect.
As with many tropical and subtropical plants, this lemongrass is very sensitive to frost and will die if a frost hits.
It can be grown outdoors in USDA hardiness zones 10-12 as an annual. However, growers have successfully raised it as an annual in zones as far north as 8b.
Many also grow their lemongrass in containers to be overwintered indoors, and the lemony scent can be enjoyed on decks or patios during warmer weather.
Any temperatures below 40° degrees Fahrenheit will kill this plant, although it can be brought outside if temperatures are 50° degrees Fahrenheit or above.
Its ideal temperature range is 68° to 100° degrees Fahrenheit.
Watering And Feeding
When the top 1″ inch is dry, you will need to water West Indian lemongrass. This can be checked simply by sticking your finger straight down into the soil. If it feels dry to your first knuckle, it’s time to water.
Avoid overhead watering and use either the soak-and-dry method (indoor or outdoor plants) or the bottom-up method (container plants only).
For the soak-and-dry method, for slowly enough that the soil can absorb water as fast as you’re pouring it.
Work your way around the base of the plant, ensuring even coverage, until the soil has difficulty absorbing or you see moisture seeing from the drainage holes on a potted plant.
The bottom-up method is just as simple.
Place the container in a shallow tray and fill the tray with water.
Allow the soil to soak up water for about 20 minutes, add more water to the tray as needed, and stop when the soil surface feels slightly moist.
There’s a lot of debate about what NPK ratio to give your lemongrass, but the Utah State University Cooperative Extension suggests a high nitrogen liquid fertilizer monthly, increasing the dosage to a weekly feeding at half-strength between June and September.
Soil And Transplantation
West Indian lemongrass can thrive in many soil types, but they must be loose and well-draining.
Organically rich soils with a pH of .65 to 7.0 are perfect, and you can amend existing soil with compost to increase organic content and an aggregate such as coarse sand or perlite to increase drainage.
Avoid clay soils whenever possible, as these are terrible at draining.
When growing in containers, a 5-gallon bucket works wonders, as it’s not only wide enough to accommodate the clump, but it’s heavy enough that it won’t topple over.
When growing lemongrass in a container, you’ll need to repot annually to ensure fresh soil.
Propagated plants may be transplanted outdoors after any risk of frost has passed.
Grooming And Maintenance
You’ll want to keep this plant trimmed back, regardless of whether or not you plan to use it for more than decoration.
In early spring, put on some protective gloves and remove any debris, pruning the leaves to 6” inches above the stalk.
This will get it primed for the growing season and reduce the risk of pests or disease.
After that, you may trim the plant occasionally throughout the season to keep a specific height or spread.
How To Propagate West Indian Lemongrass?
It’s not always easy to get this plant to go to seed, although starting from the seeds can be quite easy.
For those unable to get this lemongrass to bloom, you can also use stem cuttings or division, both of which provide excellent results.
Lemon Grass Pests Or Diseases
West Indian lemongrass is somewhat drought-hardy and rarely deals with pests or diseases, as it tends to repel most pests (which are often vectors for the diseases).
In fact, the only ailments this plant tends to suffer from are the yellow sugarcane aphid (sipha flava) and lemongrass rust (Puccinia nakanishikii).
While safe for human consumption, this species is toxic to cats, dogs, and horses.
Keep it out of the reach of small hands due to how sharp the leaves can be.
Cymbopogon Citratus Uses
As a grass, this species is a great addition to borders and beds, although it’s more commonly used in containers to decorate patios.
The leaves can be prepared into lemongrass tea or used as a cooking herb.
Meanwhile, the oil can be steam-distilled to create soaps, perfumes, or organic cleaning products.
Lemongrass can also help detect fleas, mosquitoes, and ticks.