Monday, May 26, 2014

Lemon grass

"Hey, you can really see that it is a grass now," Pammy said as we both stood out in the garden this morning, admiring the lemon grass clump. It's quite beautiful right now, tall and lush, its longest pointed stems arching over, graceful and green. Get very close to it, ruffle its feathers a little, and it smells both lemony and lightly spicy. 

By rights the clump should be starting to die back a little now that it's autumn in Sydney, but Sydney is still enjoying a record-setting stretch for the warmest ever month of May, including the longest 'heatwave' (of successive days of above-average temperatures), and so our lemon grass is thriving in this most memorable Indian summer of a late autumn in living memory. Climate change, anyone?

The clump itself is about 1.2m (4 feet) tall at
the point where the taller leaves arch over,
and the tallest flower spike is now 2m high. This
was planted as a relatively puny seedling back in
September last year, in a less than ideal
spot which gets half-day sun at best, and yet
it has grown beautifully since December.
Its botanical name is Cymbopogon citratus, and
it is a member of the grass family of plants. It
slowly but very steadily forms a dense clump at
the base, and this has always been my problem
with growing lemon grass in pots. It does really
well for a while, then its clumpy-ness becomes
its own worst enemy as it fills the pot with roots
and stems. It can become pot-bound in no time,
no amount of water ever seems to be enough
for it, once it reaches that jungleiferous stage.
So this time I just planted it into the ground and
it is so, so much happier, and infinitely more
lovely to behold as well. Lemon grass is so
elegant I don't know why it isn't used more often
as a multi-use landscaping plant that adds
architectural form, movement, colour and shape
and can be harvested for the kitchen, too. 
The stems are lightly hairy, red-tinged at the
joints, and the sound it makes in the wind is
the rustling that is such a lovely part of
being near grasses. 
There's so much to say about lemon grass, but
I will leave "what happens next" to later on, as
at this stage I don't know what will happen next.
Yes, this tip looks like it will flower for sure, but
after that, with winter coming on, I don't know.
It's a tropical plant so it's a long way south of
home. It should die back a bit, maybe a lot.
I'll let you know when I find out. I suspect with
our changing, warming climate, it might just
shrug off our winters and keep on growing.
In the meantime there's dozens of uses for this
lemony grass. Here's just one stem, cut off at
the base, laid out on our long outdoor table.
It's the lowest portions of the stem, coloured white
or pale lemony yellow, which are used. I won't
go into all the culinary uses here, other than to
mention words like curries, stir-fries, sauces,
dressings and marinades. But to finish off this
homage to lemon grass, let's savour the flavour
with a refreshing cup of lemon grass tea. 
For the tea, finely chop some lower stem.

I then add the lemon grass to flavour green tea. I find many
herb teas on their own a bit insipid and uninspiring, so my way
is to use the herbs to flavour green tea. Here's the simple recipe...

Jamie’s lemongrass tea

1 teaspoon green tea leaves (or 1 green tea bag)
1 teaspoon finely chopped lemongrass stem
small teapot (for one or two people)

Cut an inch-long section off the bottom white portion of a lemongrass stem then chop it finely with a sharp vegie knife.
Bring some water to the boil, add the green tea and lemongrass, pour over the water and let it sit for 5 minutes.
Pour (using a strainer if your teapot doesn’t have a diffuser).
The flavour is light and delicate, very refreshing.

Tips: this makes a light, mild green tea. You can experiment with a bit more of either the tea or the lemongrass, but we prefer the lighter flavour, as it grows on you while you drink it.


Ishy said...

It looks fantastic!

Can it be harvested at any time or are there ideal times/seasons/months to harvest it?

Jamie said...

Hi Ishy
Harvest it any old time you need it. When very young and spindly it's not OK to harvest just because it's too small, but a couple of months after planting it'll have grown into thicker stalks and you can start harvesting and time of the year after that (in Sydney and warmer climates, at least). Not sure how it goes in Melbourne and Adelaide in winter...

Keda Chhabra said...

I know it needs lots of water (?) but what kind of soil/sun does it like. Mine is in a pot, in a comparatively shady spot and it's NOT HAPPY. If I could work out the right spot I'd be happy to plant it in my garden where I'm sure it would be much happier (I'm in Sydney, north of the bridge. Front yard faces NWish, back faces SEish).

Jamie said...


It's the lack of sunshine which is probably your main problem. Mine gets away with about 4 hours of direct sunshine beating down on the leaves, and that's about the minimum. More (6+ hours) is better. So, your front garden is its best hope, judging by your description.

How long has your plant been in its pot? Was it once happy but is no longer doing well? As I mentioned in my posting, lemon grass can grow so rapidly that it eventually over-fills its pot with roots, and no amount of food or water will keep it happy then, when it's root-bound. Only transplanting it into a larger pot will give it room to expand for a while longer, but I do think this is one plant that loves being in the ground.

As for soil, just non-boggy soil that lets normal rainwater drain away is the most important thing. However, it does like fertiliser, so if your soil is poor quality (or a bit heavy, clayey and wet), I'd consider raising the height of the garden bed by about 30cm, and add some new soil to improve drainage.

Good luck!

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