I must confess I am not the greatest fan of Asian cuisine.
However, lovers of that style of cooking and food preparation will know that a herb called lemongrass is widely used in the preparation of a wide variety of dishes. It is to be found in recipes for soups, for fish and poultry, for seafood and beef, for curries and, indeed, in infusions for teas. A Thai chef, for example, might use lemongrass whole, cutting off the bottom of the stalk before peeling off any dry layers … much as a Scots cook might prepare a leek … before using a mallet and a chopping board to soften the rather woody top of the stalk; the Thai chef would use this in, say, stews and curries, removing it before serving the dish. If he (or she) proposes that the diners are to eat the lemongrass, the lowest three inches of the stalk would be pounded to a paste and added to a soup, a stir-fry or a marinade. Dried and powdered, lemongrass is used to make a tea in parts of Africa and South America, particularly in Mexico. It is a very versatile herb.
The component which the Asian chef seeks is the oil, which imparts a sweet, lemony taste to whatever dish it is added to. Botanically, lemongrass is Cymbopogon, a family of the better part of fifty tall, perennial grasses which thrive in parts of the world where the climate is either tropical or warm temperate. The specific member of the family used in cookery is usually citratus and, dear reader, you do not need me to point out that the citratus part of its name refers to its citrus-like, or lemon-like, flavour. Now, for those readers who are thinking that this article belongs in the cookery column, let me now say that two other members of the same family … Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus …which are also usually included in the generic common name ‘lemongrass’… produce an oil which is used as an insecticide, an antiseptic and as a preservative; and the insecticidal properties of lemongrass oil, or citronella oil, are of considerable interest to gardeners.
Citronella candles can be found in every garden centre in Scotland, the smell from which, when lit, is intended to deter biting insects from joining the barbecue party. A warm summer, such as that which we were enjoying during July and early August, is great news for bitey things … midges, horse flies, clegs and that speciality of east-central Scotland, berry bugs. They come out as dusk falls in search of a blood meal … small, but persistent and very real versions of the vampire bat. They are not particularly fussy about the source of the blood: but human beings have thin skins of which they habitually expose large areas in the garden on a warm, sultry evening; and what self-respecting bitey thing will refuse such an invitation?
The smell of lemongrass oil repels these unwanted pests, which is why many natural insect repellent sprays and creams rely heavily on it for their effectiveness. I have here in my hand a jar of ‘Bug Buster Cream’ manufactured by Napiers Herbalists … established since 1860 … and there, writ small on the label, are the words ‘Cymbopogon nardus’ in the list of ingredients; and I shall willingly testify to the effectiveness of this product in discouraging even the dreaded West Highland midges from attacking me.
And the keen gardener has another reason to like Cymbopogon nardus; it wards off whitefly adults when the grass is grown alongside prized plants in the greenhouse - it has to be in the greenhouse in our decidedly sub-tropical climate. Its great advantages are that it is natural, non-chemical and lasts throughout the growing season. But like many non-native plants, if lemongrass were to become established in a garden, it would be the devil to get rid of. When you are finished with it in the greenhouse, dispose of it thoughtfully … just in case!