Herb to Know: Lemongrass

| February/March 1997

  • Photograph by Steven Foster

Cymbopogon citratus
• (Sim-bo-PO-gon sit-RAY-tuss)
• Family Gramineae
• Tender perennial

Among lemon herbs, lemongrass is the big one, towering 3 to 6 feet above the others—lemon verbena, lemon mint (actu­ally a monarda), lemon balm, lemon basil, lemon thyme. A blend of clear lemon flavor and flowery overtones, it’s also one of the tastiest, as Southeast Asian cooks have long known.

• Lemongrass Recipe: Thai Lemongrass ­Marinade for Fish or Chicken 

The genus Cymbopogon comprises fifty-six species of mostly aromatic grasses native to the Old World Tropics. Lemongrass (C. citratus) is native to southern India and Sri Lanka; it is cultivated for its oil in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas as well as in Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, and Uganda.

Lemongrass’s dense clumps of strap-shaped leaves may reach 6 feet tall. The individual leaves, 3 feet long by 1/2 inch wide, taper at both ends, and the tips may arch gracefully. The edges of the blades are very sharp. Blue-green throughout the summer, the leaves turn rusty red in fall. Lemongrass bears large, loose compound flower heads when grown in the Tropics, but it rarely flowers otherwise.

The generic name Cymbopogon comes from the Greek words kymbe, “boat”, and pogon, “beard”, and refers to the inflated spathe (bract) that encloses the flower spike. The specific name citratus is Latin for “lemony”; the leaves contain the lemony constituents citral and linalool.

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