Lemongrass has a fresh, light, lemony flavor and scent that is a staple in many ethnic cuisines, including Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian. It's also used in hair and skin care products and for scenting perfumes and room sprays.
Lemongrass tea is perhaps the most popular use of lemongrass herb. It's delicious hot and cold, and it combines well with many other herbs in herbal tea blends.
Cymbopogon citratus (DC. ex Nees) Stapf
Botanical Family: Poaceae
Common name: Lemongrass
Synonyms: West Indian lemongrass, fever grass, Andropogon citrates, sweet grass, citron grass, hierba de limon (Spanish)
The Plant: Lemongrass is indeed a perennial grass. It grows in large, dense clumps and has thick stems at the base that resolve into long, broad, green, aromatic leaves that taper to points.
Lemongrass is cultivated in tropical areas in Central and South America, Africa, China, Australia, the West Indies and the southern United States. Lemongrass likes full sun and moist soils, and it cannot stand frost. The plants are propagated by division of the rhizomes. Having been cultivated for centuries, the origin of the herb is unknown, as no wild plants have been found still in existence.
The genus, Cympobogon, contains 56 different species, all with fragrant leaves. Included are the citronellas (Ceylon and Java citronella) from which the popular essential oil of the same name is distilled and palmarosa, another important essential oil species. Another lemongrass species, Cymbopogon flexuosus, or East Indian lemongrass, is used much like West Indian lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus).
Lemongrass can be harvested starting six weeks after planting. The plant re-grows quickly and can be harvested up to four times a year. The whole plant is cut to the ground, and the stalks are then dried quickly to protect the delicate flavor and aroma of the herb.
Constituents of Note: The essential oil, present at 0.2 to 0.5%, is the significant constituent. The oil is comprised of 65 to 85% citral (aka neral and geraniol), common to many lemon-scented herbs. Much of the lemongrass grown is distilled into essential oil for its citral content, which is used in perfumery and as a starting point for the synthesis of Vitamin A.
Other constituents of lemongrass essential oil are myrcene and linalool.
The leaves also produce a good quality cellulose fiber that is sometimes used in paper-making.
Quality: Lemongrass herb has a spicy, lemony aroma and lemon-like, herbaceous flavor that is not tart or acidic like lemons. The leaves are a light green, with less than 10% yellow leaf parts.
Regulatory Status: GRAS (Title 21 182.20) as a natural flavoring, Dietary Supplement
Did you know? One of the American traditions that embraced the use of lemongrass is that of "Hoodoo" or "Vodoun." Practiced by former slaves in the southeastern United States, this folk system was based on West African magical and medicinal herbalism. Included as one of the powerful hoodoo grasses, lemongrass was used in many ways, including in cleansing preparations and purification rituals. Lemongrass is also traditionally used in formulas for opening the vision or making one more receptive to spiritual messages.
Suggested Uses: Lemongrass herb is best known for its use as a tasty tea, by itself or in combination with other herbs. It makes an ideal, appetite-promoting, before-dinner tea, as well as a tummy-soothing, after-the-meal tea.
The tea is also a part of the folk medicine of many of the countries where it is grown. It is considered a cooling tea, and it is also helps soothe a restless state. Combining lemongrass with equal parts of lemon balm and lemon verbena to make a tea gives a full range of lemony goodness, whether served hot or cold. Lemongrass also combines well with the mints, especially spearmint and apple mint, and with other tart herbs, such as rosehips and hibiscus.
Lemongrass is also a good flavor addition to herb formulas, especially in those where it can act as a supportive herb to the formula while adding flavor.
The flavor of lemongrass is indispensable in Thai, Sri Lankan, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Malaysian and Cambodian cooking. The base of the fleshy stalk is what is typically used, smashed to release the oil and break-up the fibers, then chopped fresh and added to soups, stir-fries, curries and seafood dishes.
Dried lemongrass leaves are less potent than the fresh stalks, and, due to their tough nature, they don't make a simple one-to-one substitute for fresh lemongrass in most recipes. However, the dried lemongrass herb is more readily available and can be used in many dishes. For liquids such as soups and stews, you can tie the dried lemongrass in a muslin cloth (or bag), then remove it after the dish is cooked, much like a bay leaf. Or strain out the spent leaves before serving in sauces and in marinades. Another option is to grind the lemongrass into fine pieces before adding to dishes. As a guideline, use one tablespoon of dried lemongrass herb for every stalk of fresh called for in the recipe.
Lemongrass is also used in creams, lotions, hair care and skin cleansing preparations. Its astringent properties make it popular for use in products for oily hair or skin.
Like its cousin citronella, lemongrass oil is used in bug-deterrent sprays and makes a pleasant room fragrance spray.
Caution/Safety: The Botanical Safety Handbook* classifies lemongrass as:
Class: 2b Herbs not to be used during pregnancy.
*Michael McGuffin, ed., American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, (New York: CRC Press, 1997)
Origins: Lemongrass is cultivated in tropical areas in Central and South America, Africa, China, Australia, the West Indies and the southern United States. Our certified organic lemongrass is grown by members of a small farmer co-op in Sri Lanka and our non-organic lemongrass herb comes from Thailand.
Meet Our Grower: In 2009 we received our first shipment of organic lemongrass from our Well Earth supplier in Sri Lanka. We were very impressed with the quality, and, starting in 2010, began contracting for our full year’s supply of organic lemongrass herb.
The lemongrass is grown by a co-op of small farmers who are working together to establish a prosperous and sustainable farming community that will enhance the socioeconomic standards of its members. Another tenant of the co-op is that it operates fairly, without racial, gender, and religious discrimination. Since the co-op encompasses different ethnic communities with a variety of microclimates and crops, respecting diversity is very important. Women play an equal role in the organization.
Some of the endeavors of the co-op include learning how to grow new cash crops, drinking water projects to bring potable water to the villages, and the distribution of planting stock and livestock such as goats and cows.
Lemongrass is only one of the ten botanicals we purchase from our Well Earth partner in Sri Lanka. But because of their commitment to economic, social and environmental sustainability -- as well as the quality of their products -- we continuously work with them to identify other crops they might provide.