Written By Henrylito D. Tacio
It comes in various names: barbed wire grass, silky heads, citronella grass, camel’s hay, cochin grass, and fever grass. In French, it is known as herbe de citron while Indians call it bhustrina or sera. In Thailand, it is known as takra while Filipinos simply call it as tanglad. Scientists have given the name Cymbopogon citratus for it but all over the world, it is simply called lemon grass.
However you call it, this tropical fragrant grass with an aromatic citrus flavor and a tinge of ginger can be the elusive answer to your medicinal, cooking, and drinking needs. Lemon grass is commonly used in teas, soups, and curries. The oil is used as a pesticide and preservative. The aromatic herb is used in Caribbean and many types of Asian cooking and has become very popular in the United States.
But one good thing about lemon grass is that it has been under study for its medicinal purposes. Lemon grass has 65-85 percent citral that contains active ingredients like myrcene, citronella, citronellol, and geraniol. Citral is a mobile pale-yellow liquid used in perfume and as flavoring; it can also be found in lemon peel.
In 2006, a research team from the Ben Gurion University in Israel found that lemon grass caused apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cells. Through in vitro studies, the researchers examined the effect of cirtal on both normal and cancerous cells. Using concentrations of citral equivalent to the quantity in a cup of tea (one gram of lemon grass in hot water), the researchers observed that citral induces programmed cell death in the cancerous cells, while the normal cells were left unharmed.
“In each cell in our body is a genetic program which causes programmed cell death,” explains Prof. Yakov Weistein, of the university’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology. “When something goes wrong, the cells divide with no control and become cancer cells. In normal cells, when the cell discovers that the control system is not operating correctly, like when it recognizes that a cell contains faulty genetic material following cell division, it triggers cell death.”
On the other hand, a study done by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) discovered that every 100 grams of edible lemon grass, when boiled, can contain up 24.205 micrograms of beta-carotene, an antioxidant that scientists believe can help prevent cancer.
Lemon grass has several other medicinal uses. It has been found to have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. For instance, ingesting lemon grass may protect the digestive tract from infections or food poisoning.
Lemon grass also has anti-pyretic and anti-mutagenic properties, which will reduce fevers and reverse chemically induced mutations respectively. It is considered a diuretic, tonic and stimulant. It promotes good digestion, and a preparation of lemon grass with pepper has been used for relief of menstrual troubles and nausea.
Herbal mixes containing lemongrass may also promote digestion of fats; relieve muscle spasms and insomnia; act as a painkiller; reduce the effects of jet lag; provide a calming anti-stress effect; stimulate blood circulation; and cool the body in the summer through stimulated perspiration. Used externally, lemon grass may help treat ringworm, athlete’s foot, arthritis, dandruff and oily skin conditions.
Another DOST study showed that lemon grass oil has the potential as a topical eye medication against keratomycosis, an inflammation of cornea often associated with burning or blurring of vision.
Lemon grass is also a good mouthwash. Two tablespoonfuls of chopped leaves are soaked in one glass of hot water for 30 minutes. Strain it first before using the infusion as mouthwash.
Although lemon grass is an effective remedy for various ailments, it should not replace conventional medicine or prescription drugs. In the United States, the Food and Drug Authority has not fully investigated the health benefits of lemon grass. It has been found that oil may cause skin rashes when used on the skin directly or when consumed as a tea. Pregnant women and young children are advised not to drink lemon grass as the long-term effects of the herb are unknown.
All over Asia, lemon grass is one of the most popular ingredients in some dishes as it adds a distinct citrus-like taste. The light lemon flavor of this grass blends well with garlic, chilies, and cilantro. The entire stalk of the grass can be used. The bulb can be bruised and minced for use in a variety of recipes. The leaves are finely chopped or ground to release the flavor and to aid in the digestion of the coarse leaves.
Lemon grass harmonizes well with coconut milk, especially with chicken or seafood.
Unknown to many, lemon grass can also be made into a refreshing drink. To make four servings, the following are needed: four cups of water, one-half cup of chopped fresh lemon grass (tops only), muscovado sugar to taste, and kalamansi (optional).
To prepare the drink, here what to do: Add lemon grass to boiling water. Turn off heat and let solution stand for 8-10 minutes. Strain and squeeze kalamansi, sweeten to taste, and chill. Serve the drink with ice.
Teas made from lemon grass are also popular and sometimes used for dieting. Since lemon grass has a higher content of citral in its essential oil than actual lemon, lemon grass extract can be found in products such as candies, baked goods and alcoholic beverages.
The oil from lemon grass can be used as a preservative. As such, lemon grass oil is put on the ancient palm-leaf manuscripts found in India. It is used at the Oriental Research Institute Mysore, the French Institute of Pondicherry, the Association for the Preservation of the Saint Thomas Christian Heritage in Kerala and many other manuscript collections in India. The lemon grass oil also injects natural fluidity into the brittle palm leaves and the hydrophobic nature of the oil keeps the manuscripts dry so that the text is not lost to decay due to humidity.
Lemon grass has an assortment of other uses and benefits. It works as an insect repellent under the name of citronella in bug sprays and candles to ward off mosquitoes, biting flies and fleas. As a mosquito repellant, just topically apply the juice from pounded leaves.
Lemon grass can also be found in other candles, incense, massage oils, perfumes, soaps and detergents. Its essential oil is often used in aromatherapy to relieve stress and promote well-being.
For aromatic bath, here’s what you need to do: Boil four handfuls of leaves in one liter for five minutes. Add enough water to make it lukewarm. Use the decoction as bath for the sick and for mothers who have just given birth. A precaution: Lemon grass should not be used in pregnant because it stimulates the uterine and menstrual flow.