Yarb Tales Lemongrass

June 20, 2016

The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

Lemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus, is one of several herbal grasses growing in the Heritage Herb Garden. It is native to the tropics in South and Southeast Asia and it will not winter over outside here in the Arkansas Ozarks. Our specimen lives in a large pot and is transferred from the greenhouse to the garden when night time temperatures are reliably warm and then back again before frost. It thrives between 64º and 100° F. and loves full sun, high humidity and well-drained soil.

To harvest, the leaves are cut from the base of the plant. Before slicing, the outer sheath is peeled away, revealing a tender, moist core. Slices of the grass are added to infusions, teas, Asian stir-fry, soups and meat dishes to impart the flavor of lemon without the sour taste. The lemon flavor can be captured by steeping the slices in scalded milk; this infusion can be used to make puddings, pie fillings and ice cream.

Though the majority of Arkansas Ozark residents would not have been familiar with the recipes that call for lemongrass during the late 1800s and most of the 1900s. It is quite possible that products containing lemongrass oil would have been available in stores.

According to Maude Grieve's Modern Herbal, the essential oil is a source for citral, which is used in the production of artificial violet perfume. The oil is called verbena oil because the scent is so similar to that of lemon verbena. The oil was also an adulterant of lemon oil. Besides perfume, the oil is used in soaps, lotions and insect repellents. According to The Big Book of Herbs by Arthur Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio, lemongrass oil is documented to kill tropical cattle ticks. An entry in the Wikipedia page for Cymbopogon citratus shows a diagram of the flight of a captive stable fly, illustrating that the fly avoided the area of the cage that had been treated with lemongrass oil. These uses are applicable to my life as a gardener and keeper of donkeys.

The gardeners will be dividing the lemongrass plant and potting clumps into smaller pots very soon. Lemongrass essential oil may be found in the Village Apothecary Shop inside the Ozark Folk Center Craft Village. Stone Ground in Mountain View carries essential oils as well. If I don't see you in the future—I'll see you in the pasture!