The last time you were at a barbeque or outdoor function did you get eaten alive by mosquitos? If not, there were probably repellants of some kind. Repellants for mosquitos can take many forms. Some are chemical, like bug sprays, Tiki Torches, and ‘foggers.’ Others can be all-natural – like the mosquito plant. What is the mosquito plant? It’s a natural alternative to other bug repellants that we’ll look at in more detail!
What is the Mosquito Plant?
The mosquito plant – also known as citronella – really refers to a whole host of different plants. Plants that are most commonly called ‘citronella’ or ‘mosquito plants’ are typical of the genus Cymbopogon. This is a genus of plants that is also known as lemongrass. The species Cymbopogon citratus and Cymbopogon schoenanthus are oftentimes marketed as lemongrass in home improvement and garden stores.
To add to the confusion, the ‘species’ Pelargonium citrosum (in quotes here because it is not a valid scientific name), is also often sold as the ‘mosquito plant.’ P. citrosum actually belongs to the family Geraniaceae, also commonly known as geraniums. The family that true lemon grasses belong to is Poaceae, commonly known as the grass family.
Mosquito plants (those of Poaceae) are native to Africa, Asia, and Australia, and thus are used to living in both hot and dry climates. They have blades ranging from 1-10 centimeters (.5-4 in) and can grow in height up to 3 meters (10 ft). Almost 25% of earth’s vegetation is made up of grass-dominated plant communities!
Uses of Mosquito Plants
Mosquito plants have many uses beyond just acting as a mosquito repellent. C. citratus specifically is known for various uses around the world. To be clear, these are reported uses around the world, not scientifically or medically validated and recommended uses. Some of those uses include:
- Brazil: in most of South America, mosquito plant is typically infused to make a hot tea. It is believed to work as a diuretic, sedative, fever reducer, and to cure muscle spasms.
- India: on the Indian subcontinent, the plant has a wide variety of uses. In its whole form, the plant is believed to repel snakes. An essential oil, citronella, can be distilled from the plant and used to cure stomach problems. Some Indians believe that bathing in hot water steeped in the leaves may cure severe fevers and headaches.
- United States: Laotian Hmong in the state of Minnesota use the hot water extract of the whole plant for healing wounds and bone fractures.
- Egypt: extract of the dried leaves is taken orally to work as an anti-spasm medication.
- Thailand: whereas many cultures use the extract of the leaves and roots, Thai people use the entire plant as a garnish or condiment.
How to Grow the Mosquito Plant
Just like all plants, the mosquito plant requires a certain set of conditions to grow and thrive. Let’s take a look at some of the ideal characteristic of the perfect mosquito plant growing habitat:
- Hardiness: The USDA defines a ‘hardiness scale’ for what minimum temperatures a given plant can withstand. The scale runs from zone 1 at -51.1℃ to -45.6℃ (-60℉ to -50℉) to zone 13 at 15.6℃ to 21.1℃ (60℉ to 70℉). Plants that are ‘hardy’ to a lower zone are therefore considered more tolerant to colder temperatures. Mosquito plants are typically hardy to zones 10-12. This means they will start to die if exposed to temperatures below freezing (0℃/32℉). In the United States, this means they will only grow on or just inland from the southern and western coasts. These plants should only be planted after the last frost of the year.
- Water: Lemongrasses prefer waterfall in the range of 150-300 centimeters (60-120 in), but can tolerate almost one and a half times that. For reference, Seattle receives about 37 inches of rain and New Orleans about 61 inches.
- Sun and Soil: Mosquito plants prefer wet soil and full sun. The historic range of the plant (Australia, Africa, etc) means that it is somewhat drought-resistant
How to Identify the Mosquito Plant
Now that we know what the mosquito plant is and also how to grow it, let’s take a look at how to identify the plant.
- Where: You can find C. citratus and other lemongrasses in warm, semi-wet areas around the world. They thrive especially in Australia, India, Africa, and coastal South America.
- When: It’s best to harvest leaves and stems when the plant is 120-240 days old. This also means it will be near its full size at this point. It can be harvested every 90 days or so. If you are in an area that is growing and harvesting the mosquito plant, it may be hard to spot after a harvest.
- Appearance: C. citratus will appear like a typical grassy plant you could find in your yard or a local park. Look for a clump of grass that grows taller than the surrounding plants. They typically will have blades between 1-10 centimeters (.5-4 in), and the plant itself typically will be 1-2 meters (3-5 feet) tall.
If you are still having trouble identifying lemongrass, Poaceae, mosquito plants, or any other flora, try using PlantSnap! It’s a mobile plant identifier that can help you identify all the useful plants around you to keep those mosquitos away.