Lemongrass – Always Greener On The Other Side?

In the series of my unexpected encounters on Crete, there came lemongrass one day and greeted me with a sort of casual looking grass appearance tufted with some grounded elegance. There is no way you just overlook a hugely overgrown tussock like this with grand linear and lanceolate leaves. A straight character catching you with its refreshing an uplifting tonality.

The article was originally written for and published in the issue 2020/1 of Aromatika Magazin, an online publication in Hungary to support holistic living, the practice and professional education of aromatherapy, phytotherapy, naturopathy and related subjects. My special thanks and gratitude goes to Gergely Hollódi, editor-in-chief of this beautifully constructed aromatherapy periodical, for his always encouraging support. Hope you enjoy the English version in this post. The original copy of the electronic magazine in Hungarian is available for download from the website of Aromatika Magazin.

 

As often with plants, likewise human beings, the circumstances of meeting them – whether we realise at that moment or not – is already starting to tell us the story of who they are, and what they have to bring into our life.

With lemongrass, it all began with an informal voluntary initiative, a series of gatherings of some quite passionate people wanting to create more awareness around healthy food and organic farming. We had farmers in the group, and others deeply in their phase of visualising their natural live-style and eager to learn more about organic cultivation, just as much as having access to fresh and unpoisoned farm produce. Many of us were doing fieldworks, more or less regularly, and what we certainly had in common was a strong drive to make a change we wanted to see in the world.

That little community could easily be labelled with the exact same description what we would say about lemongrass. A light, fresh, green context, lifting our mood with a cheerful aroma.

Refreshing initiatives

We organised various community actions from permaculture practices to education about GMOs and ancient grains to clearing rubbish from walking paths, and establishing smaller support groups. While we could not manage to keep up with our weekly gatherings all year around, numerous private arrangements between the members has developed from it creatively and organically.

One of the most knowledgable farmers in the group, Leonidas Paterakis already had 5 years of experience in natural farming at the time taking care of the land of his grandfather. Little by little, Leonidas and his partner Dimitra, a school teacher in the morning and a farmer in the afternoon, have been creating a beautiful biodiversity where an affluence of plants now thrive along together. Between the olive trees and raised beds of vegetables, they planted many aromatic herbs, and this is how I got to the surprise of finding lemongrass just right next to a huge rosemary plant.

Leonidas was telling me he harvested a bit from the lemongrass, but was not doing much with it. He became excited to learn about my distillations, and offered me the possibility to harvest and distill his lemongrass.

Grass beyond excitement

Can you imagine my excitement too? This is what I call ‘Expect the Unexpected’, that is to say follow your passion, go with the flow, be humble, and the right people and situations will appear in your life. As I know too well that unexpected turns are very undesirable to a lot of people, like it or not, let me just blow the mystery away here. The magic of a wondrous life is that one can certainly expect to keep learning along the road.

If you don’t know lemongrass, it is a tall perennial highly aromatic grass in the genus Cymbopogon that is native to Asia with around 50-60 species. Quite a few of them are used in aromatherapy, including Ceylon citronella (Cymbopogon nardus), Java citronella (C. winteratus), East Indian lemongrass (C. flexuosus), and West Indian lemongrass (C. citratus). They all seem to look the same,  and so at first it made me think, which one of them I had found there at the farm. Although it was likely one of the last two. C. flexuosus however is rather grown in southern India, while it is the so-called West Indian type Cymbopogon citratus that is largely cultivated in the humid tropical and subtropical climate all over the world, and easily thrives in the Mediterranean areas too.

No matter in what context it arises, I cannot educate people enough about the importance of plant identification. And with that for instance, to claim and be able to understand the Latin plant names written (or not) on the labels when choosing essential oils, that is just the top of the iceberg. Supposedly, we all used to study about plant families and such at school, but let’s be honest, most of that knowledge had gone missing over the years as we became adults and busy with ‘more serious things’. However, we lately started to come to a point when these things gained more significance anew, largely due to our health-related concerns. Again, it is a life-long learning, and learning again, and researching and studying more.

When you have a good foundation, then you can go further, with slowly growing confidence to find your way around in the very real “facebook” of the natural world. Coming back to identifying our lemongrass, I also learned that the West Indian C. citratus have two varieties, the white-stemmed and the red-stemmed, and the latter adapts easily to various soil and climate conditions, as it does on Crete. In our harvesting process here, the red stem soon became more apparent…

 

The harvesters – Ildiko, Dimitra and Leonidas
Harvesting lemongrass on Crete

That was on a bright November day on Crete during the season of the olive harvest as we went to experiment with the techniques of harvesting lemongrass, while remained being playful and enjoying the process. Hiding in the luscious tussock was fun, and the sweetness of the moment came from both spending time with the shiny young caretakers of the land and the magical first-time experience for myself harvesting lemongrass. As Leonidas is both very knowledgable and intuitive, harvesting under his guidance went more or less how later on I have book-learnt about the method they carry in India, cutting the grass about 10 cm above the ground level.

We were really lucky, as the weather started to be a bit funny and rainy after we had collected what we needed. The small shelter on the field though let us do chopping the lemongrass into small pieces and prepare it for distillation. This stage of the work is already a real aromatic experience. The unique spicy scent of lemongrass gets released with every chop of the stems, spreading the refreshing and uplifting lemony aroma all around that makes us cheered and bright!

By the way, according to aromatherapist and author Salvatore Battaglia in Australia, who references this to the work of Edward Weiss, “only young and rapidly expanding leaves synthetize and accumulate essential oils. The leave blades have a higher oil content than the sheaths, and the oil content increases from leaf base to the tip.” So I guess, that justifies where you cut the grass when you collect the leaves for distillation.

As the sun sets we have a magical atmosphere in The Living-Room Distillery watching as the Full moon rises
When things get really unexpected

As soon as I get back home to The Living-Room Distillery, the still is already prepared, just ready to be filled with the freshly cut and chopped lemongrass. I have enough material, so I am doing a mixed process of steam and hydro-distillation with a total plant weight of slightly less than four and a half kilos in my copper alembic of 30 litre capacity. As usual in my quality-focussed artisan distillations, I do slow-cooking, and as in a sacred ceremony, I like to quietly sit with my still for hours as a midwife who assists giving birth to a new life. When the sun sets, its supportive energies over the magical atmosphere in the still room are taken care by the Full Moon rising.

As it happens in fairy tales too, there are always complications. People, aliens or fairies may come and go, creating distractions and bringing new challenges in the most romantic and peaceful settings. It was not until the next day though, when I realised there was more of a disruption than I had thought. When emptying the cauldron from the biomass, guess what I found hiding amongst the leaves? My secateurs must have unnoticedly got slid into the container at some point and got distilled with the plant! Mixed emotions of anger and sadness got blended with nervous and helpless laugh. As an agent of duty, I resignedly documented and photographed the unfortunate case and let go of my beautiful smelling distillate, in an understanding that it must contain unwanted chemicals absorbed from the plastic parts of the cutter. Expect the unexpected, did I say? As much as abundance comes to our life in surprising ways, so does the shadow part to teach us valuable lessons. Whether we like it or not, being unable to get prepared for everything carries the wisdom of experience and learning.

Heads up and go again

Never give up, but work with the ingredients and sure, you will be able to create something new. While a couple of days later it was time to harvest and distill helichrysum, followed by that I did a second run with lemongrass. This time, I used wilted plants and I soaked them in water prior to distillation. Now I went for hydro-distillation with a plant material of less than 3 kilograms and got a nice compensation for the previous loss. Also, I was able to witness the very noticeable difference between the outcome of the two distillations. Since I had not immediately disposed the spoiled hydrosol of the failured distillation, I could compare them side by side. The fresh harvest, the amount of material, the combo technique and many additional factors led to a very distinct, deliciously fresh and surprisingly warming aroma, with a hint of spicy background note. The second distillate could be described similarly, yet with a somewhat weaker aroma.

As an artisan distiller, you tend to have a different perspective on your material, and living an aromatic life has its own niveaux, generally with a higher level of expectations towards your own self. This is to say, that mostly everybody who never got the chance to test my first lemongrass hydrosol, was very pleased experiencing the second batch. It is truly uplifting to the heart and my background story couldn’t be more symbolic as is.

To support the kind of energy lemongrass carries, you may meditate on the following lines:

How kind you are to others?
Now try that on yourself!
Don’t think of how you’ve failed, love.
Be more compassionate with yourself.
Look how your project went wrong,
Think about how you can make it work.
Have confidence to try again.
This time, expect some fireworks.
Explore parts you’ve yet to find exist.
To be childlike, curious and open,
Find skills you might have missed.
And forgotten lessons – reopen.
Happiness comes from curiosity,
To wonder “what if?” then explore,
To be led by Lemongrass’s flow,
And triumph in creativity more.

(Poem by Elisabeth Ashley, The Secret Healer, from the Tongue of the Trees aromatherapy oracle cards)

 

Needless to say how clearly and wonderfully the aromatic poem reflects the process of self-realisation and going beyond self-imposed limitations. As an aromatherapist, I find great inspiration in working on mental, emotional and spiritual issues through the aromatherapy oracle cards that I have worked with great success in the past five years or so. A great gift to the world that these cards, originally published in Hungarian by our internationally recognised aromatherapy teacher, therapist, author and organiser Gergely Hollódi, recently got re-designed and made available in English.

Bi-directional expansion

We tend to say that the biochemical properties of the essential oils as they affect the physical body can be translated into psychological and more subtle energetic capacities. However, it is often acknowledged that following the principles of energy and matter, and understanding that many physical illnesses can actually be first tracked in the subtle auric field of the human body, our usual logic can be reversed.

Following this philosophy, we may come to the same conclusion describing the therapeutic use of lemongrass. As you inhale its lemony, fresh and sharp notes you may somewhat feel like that’s a cousin to black pepper, ginger, cardamon and such. What they have all in common is their act as a tonic both to the mind and the digestive tract. Lemongrass has strong sedative and antidepressant qualities, and if we recognise that stress-related issues often manifest in the stomach, then it is easier to understand how addressing the nervous system can help cleaning up other disorders. Likewise, the same may apply to help tension, inflammation and pain of the muscles and joints. The anti-inflammatory properties come parallel to the calming effects, something we can more deeply understand when considering the energetic approach of traditional western herbalism, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) or ayurvedic traditions. In these contexts, lemongrass would be acting on damp situations, balancing excess and stagnation. Beyond being a balancer, it is a vasodilator and as you can easily see, that again means expansion, in this case for the blood vessels.

When applying on the skin, a properly low-dosage dilution is needed as though it is toning the tissues, but can easily be irritant. That also informs a careful use when applied topically as an anti-fungal agent. To close the list of some of the highlighted use of lemongrass essential oil, that most commonly known features perhaps are disinfecting the air and applying it as an insect-repellent.

Medicinal food

Just as a bonus, let me bring you a simple example to demonstrate how medicinal properties are related to lifestyle and food, as the alpha and omega of real medicine. Many years ago, I had a chance to taste a wonderful soup on a journey to Thailand. As in many dishes there, lemongrass contributes to the distinctive aroma of their classic Tom Yum soup. Beyond being yummy and delicious, it is actually aiding digestion and providing antibacterial properties in the casual kitchen of a subtropical country with a classic street food fashion. What a perfectly fine functionality, would you give it a try?

PS: If you are on this journey of self-discovery, healing and empowerment and feel the call of the magical power of the plant world, you may want to check out what else I have for offer on my signature website as a Holistic Guide to Life. With love, Ildiko

References:

Baby P. Skaria, P.P. Joy, Samuel Mathew and Gracy Mathew (2006). Handbook of Herbs and Spices. Volume 3
Woodhead Publishing Series in Food Science, Technology and Nutrition, Lemongrass Pages 400-419

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305996042_Lemongrass_Handbook_of_Spices

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Pp_Joy/publication/305996042_Lemongrass_Handbook_of_Spices/links/57a9871808aef20758cd21d8/Lemongrass-Handbook-of-Spices.pdf

Jennifer PeaceRhind (2014). Fragrance and Wellbeing. Singing Dragon.

Salvatore Battaglia (2018). The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy Third Edition. Black Pepper Creative.

Hollódi G., Ashley E. (2019). Tongue of the Trees. Aroma Botanica. The Secret Healer.

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