Archive for the ‘Perfume’ Category

Blades of Glory: Whether catching morning dew or in your morning brew, lemon grass has it covered

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

It’s summertime and the living is easy, as long as I have a tall glass of lemon grass and mint iced tea to cut the heat. Fortunately, I grow both mint and lemon grass, so I can make ice tea whenever I want — and you can, too.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) gets its fresh, lemony scent from citral oil, the same oil that is found in lemon verbena, lemon balm and, of course, lemons! Thai and Vietnamese cooks harvest sheaths of lemon grass, chop up the tender bases and add them to soups, salads and curries. Lemon grass citral oil is even used in cosmetics like soaps, creams and deodorants.

This evergreen perennial grass comes from India and Ceylon. In our gardens, lemon grass makes a 4- to 6-foot mound of inch-wide, bright green leaves that sometimes take on a purple tinge in the cooler days of winter.

Lemon grass is beautiful and adaptable to almost any garden style: tropical, Asian, Mediterranean or modern. Plants prefer full sun or bright shade, and soil that drains reasonably well. Along the coast, lemon grass is fairly low-water. Inland, though, more water keeps plants looking their best.

Site lemon grass plants with enough room to reach their natural height and width. Fertilize only sparingly if at all, to keep growth under control. These are two key strategies of low-maintenance gardening.

Over time, older leaves turn brown. Simply comb them out by hand (wear gloves; the leaf edges are sharp). If the mound starts to separate in the center, simply dig it up and divide the plant into three or four sections, then replant each one (or give some away).

If you don’t have enough room in the ground, lemon grass does very well in a large container. You might even add some colorful variegated coleus and red- or orange-flowering canna for color. Water regularly through summer.

To harvest lemon grass, find the base of the mound, where you’ll see leaves arranged in bundles. Cut a bundle just below the rounded bottom edge and just above the roots. That tender, fleshy, ivory-colored, rounded base is the part used for cooling. Whatever you don’t cook with, simply steep in boiled water, along with fresh mint leaves, to make aromatic lemonade.

East Indian lemon grass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) also contains the citrusy citral oil but tends to be used in the perfume industry rather than for cooking. Mosquito repelling citronella oil comes from lemon grass cousins, Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus.

Hidden Pleasures

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

Hidden Pleasures

Plants are so amazing….

Last night, my husband and I took an evening stroll and as we stepped out the front door, I was struck by a sweet fragrance.   I couldn’t quite pinpoint its source, and since my husband was already half way up the street, I scrambled after him rather than taking the time to find it.

Upon our return, however, I stopped him before he made it to the front door.  “Honey,” I said, “do you smell that?  Lets figure out where it is coming from.”  I happen to have a better smeller than he does, but I like to involve him in my plant escapades from time to time.

I know from experience that the biggest smells often comes from the most demure or subtle blooms.  In fact, it is a common strategy for plants whose flowers aren’t very showy to make a big smell.  We humans may think that the fragrance is for our enjoyment, but in truth, that’s how the plants attract pollinators.  And the fragrance isn’t always sweet.

In the case of Stapelia, for example, the genus is known for its off-color, star-shaped  flowers that nestle deep among succulent branches.  It would be pretty challenging for an insect or bird to find their blooms by sight.  But the flowers emit a terrible odor, like rotten meat.  And guess what their pollinator is…   flies!  What better way to attract a fly than to smell like rotten meat?

Pale colored flowers are often fragrant too.  Angel trumpet (Brugmansia) for example, has lovely, huge, dangling trumpet-shaped flowers, typically in ghostly white, pale, yellow or pale pink/coral.

Beautiful white flowering angel trumpet is fragrant from afternoon to evening to attract its pollinator, a night flying moth

Beautiful white flowering angel trumpet is fragrant from afternoon to evening to attract its pollinator, a night flying moth

These big-blooming South American natives are pollinated by moths at night.  So, how do the moths find their targets in the dark?

If you grow angel trumpet, you’ve probably noticed that they emit a wonderful floral fragrance starting in the late afternoon and lasting through much, if not all of  night time hours (I’m never awake long enough to figure out when the fragrance abates).  The moths simply follow the scent.

By the way, hybrid angel trumpets are selected for more intense-colored flowers.  And the  cold-tolerant, Andean red angel’s trumpet, Brugmansia sanguinea blooms deep orange-red with a yellow throat.

One of my favorite species gladiolas, Gladiolus tristis (South African marsh Afrikaner) uses the same strategy as the angel trumpet. These January/February bloomers have tall, narrow leaves and the palest of yellow flowers.  Starting late afternoon, their perfume fills the air, just in time to attract their own moth pollinator.

But this time of year, the angel trumpet has yet to flower and the gladiola is long past.  So what was so fragrant?

Amazingly enough, it was a Sansevieria, a plant whose unfortunate common name is mother-in-law’s tongue.

Sansevieria are evergreen plants of tropical and subtropical Africa and Asia.  They were tremendously popular in the era of  mid-century modern and modernistic architecture (roughly 1940s – 70s) because of their own architecture. Tall, smooth, single pointed blades each rise straight from the ground, some solid green, some pale green, some green with yellow margins, and others spotted.  Some blades are straight while others twist slightly.  Still others fold into themselves to form a solid cylindrical spear.

Sansevieria with spotted blades

Sansevieria with spotted blades

Sansevieria with patterned blades

Sansevieria with patterned blades

Sansevieria with cylindrical blades

Sansevieria with cylindrical blades

Sansevieria continue their popularity in part because these oddities are able to live in the shade outdoors (in frost free areas) or indoors with almost no water at all, as long as they are planted in very well draining soil.

I have a Sansevieria given to me years ago that was my very last houseplant after the rest died or migrated outdoors.  It sat in my office and was watered about once every six months – when I remembered.  I finally took pity on it and moved it outdoors where it really isn’t as happy as it seemed indoors.

This demure little Sansevieria bloom has the fragrance of fresh Freesias

This demure little Sansevieria bloom has the fragrance of fresh Freesias

But last night as I searched my front entry patio, I noticed a very small, very unobtrusive, and unfortunately no longer labeled Sansevieria.  It sat in a small pot where it had produced a tall flower stalk, the source of the evening’s perfume extravaganza.

The funny thing is, I have at least a dozen kinds of Sansevieria, most given to me more than 25 years ago by the late plant explorer Manny Singer of Singer’s Growing Things.  All these years, they haven’t even hinted at blooming, and this year, at least four different types are in bloom.  And all fragrant.

Ah, the wonder of plants!