Do you love a touch of the tropics in your garden? Let us introduce you to lemongrass. If you haven’t heard of it you can guess what it looks and smells like without much help – it’s a grass that smells like lemon! Let’s take a closer look at this laid-back plant and find out if lemongrass is a perennial or annual and how to grow it.
Lemongrass: Perennial or Annual?
Lemongrass is a perennial but tender plant. This means it’s perennial in tropical or sub-tropical areas but can’t survive cold temperatures. In cold areas, gardeners grow lemongrass as an annual.
Lemongrass is not annual, even though most people have to sow it each year. It’s just that it’s killed off early by cold temperatures it didn’t evolve in.
Lemongrass is perennial in USA zones 9-10. Anything under and it’s likely to die to overwinter. Anywhere frosty is almost certain to kill it.
What Does Perennial Mean?
Perennis is Latin for ‘lasting the year through’ and it’s the basis for our word perennial. Perennial plants last the whole year through and then some! Plants that grow back each year are called perennials, they can be evergreen or deciduous (deciduous means it loses leaves) like lemon balm.
Annual plants are the type that germinate, flower and set seed before dying off. Annuals do all their growing in one year.
Lemongrass is a perennial that’s grown like an annual in colder European climates.
All About Lemon Grass
Lemongrass is Cymbopogon, a genus of plants in the Poaceae grass family with an aromatic lemon scent to its foliage. It’s also called citronella grass, fever grass, barbed wire grass, silky heads, Cochin grass and oily heads. The name Cymbopogon is pronounced kym-bo-pogon which is Greek for boat-beard and describes its boat-like spathes.
Lemongrass is native to Africa, Asia and Australia as well as some smaller tropical islands in the pacific. The cymbopogon genus includes many different species such as Cymbopogon citratus and Cymbopogon winterianus plus numerous ornamental cultivars. It’s the citratus species that’s mainly used for medicines and culinary flavorings.
What Does Lemongrass Look Like?
In the garden, lemongrass is a tall plant that grows to about 6.5 feet. It has stiff, strappy leaves that tip over at the top just like a fountain. In summer, grassy brown-cream flower spikes emerge from the clump’s center. It’s not likely to flower beneath zone 9 or anywhere with a cold winter.
In the store, lemongrass looks like a chubby spring onion with a woody stalk.
What’s Lemongrass Used For?
Lemongrass is grown industrially for its essential oils. One of the main purposes is extracting citronella for all-natural insecticides.
It’s usually lemongrass you can taste in lemon tea and smell in cleaning products. Long pieces of lemongrass are excellent when they’re slowly roasted with meat or fish. It gives a hint of lemon flavor without taking over like actual lemon fruits can.
Lemongrass is being investigated for many potential uses in medicine and also for its preservation properties.
Does Lemongrass Come Back?
If you live in zones 8 and under then it’s unlikely lemongrass will come back after a cold winter. It’s a tender perennial which means it can only tolerate warm climates. Even in zone 9 its likely to die back before regenerating in springtime.
Lemongrass will come back after harvesting. It generally grows in a clump with lots of stalks. Taking a few of the stalks won’t harm the clump and it will grow more in the summertime.
How To Harvest Lemongrass
Twist or cut off a stalk of lemongrass as close to the base as you can manage. Look for a stalk that’s ¼ inch thick because these are still young and tasty but large enough to be useful.
The base pieces are the best parts to eat with your roast fish or chicken The woody stalks and leaves are best dried and used over winter in a herbal tea or as flavoring in casseroles or soups.
How To Overwinter Lemongrass
Even in tropical areas, lemongrass tends to go dormant over winter. It will stop producing new stalks and shouldn’t be harvested in winter.
In cooler areas below zone 8, it’s time to dig up any lemongrasses growing in the soil and bring them inside because frost and cold freezing winds will kill them. Lemongrass is a happy houseplant if it gets 5 hours of sunlight a day.
Can I Grow Lemongrass In A Pot?
Yes, lemongrass grows well in a pot. In fact, it’s the best way to grow it in cooler climates because it’s easier to move indoors. Ensure it has good drainage and plenty of sun. Lemongrass responds quickly to light and heat. A small lemongrass plant can double in size over just a few weeks if it’s in direct sun.
Does Lemongrass Keep Mosquitoes Away?
Lemongrass contains citronella which is an effective mosquito repellent, but the living plant doesn’t release its chemicals into the environment. To be effective, citronella is needed in large quantities. If you have a mosquito problem essential oils and citronella repellents are the best options.
However, you can make a lemongrass spray that helps with some mosquito issues. Boil lemongrass until the water turns yellow then let it steep and cool overnight. The lemongrass-infused water will help shoo a few mosquitoes away for a time.
On the other side, there are some gardeners who claim lemongrass plants keep their gardens mosquito and bug-free. It’s worth a go, especially if you intend to use lemongrass in other ways.
Is Lemongrass Toxic To Dogs?
Yes, lemongrass is toxic to dogs because it contains cyanogenic glycosides and oils, but they would have to consume a large amount to become unwell. The ASPCA says symptoms of poisoning in dogs and cats include diarrhea and vomiting. It’s rare, but horses consuming a large amount of lemongrass may have difficulty breathing and collapse.
Lemongrass is Perennial in Tropical Areas
Lemongrass is a heat-loving perennial tropical plant that tastes as good as it smells, but don’t worry if you live in a temperate climate, you can grow lemongrass indoors on a sunny windowsill or grow it as an annual each year.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/ATP-Photographer
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- RHS, Available here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/herbs/lemongrass/grow-your-own
- Royal Botanic Gardens, Available here: https://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:17833-1
- ASPCA, Available here: https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants/lemon-grass