There’s lots of confusion out there about citronella grass versus lemongrass. So much confusion, in fact, that in India the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra citronella was blended into tea instead of lemongrass until a young naturalist realized the mistake.
The naturalist, Pranay Ade, reported to Times of India, “I collected the so-called lemongrass leaves in Gorewada [a nature trail nearby] and cross-checked with experts and farmers planting them. They said that it was citronella.”
First Things First: Citronella Geranium vs. Citronella Grass
Our article covers the differences between citronella grass versus lemongrass, and we won’t be talking about citronella geranium except for in this brief section. We chose to do this because it’s citronella grass that is so often confused for lemongrass, as the two plants are cousins and have visual similarities.
Citronella geranium doesn’t normally get mixed up with lemongrass due to its appearance. However, there might be a bit of confusion because the botanical names of these two plants sound a bit similar. Citronella geranium’s botanical name is Pelargonium citrosum. (It also sometimes may be referred to as citrosa geranium or citrosa plant.) Pelargonium citrosum sounds a little bit similar to the botanical name of lemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus.
If you’re interested in learning more about the difference between citronella geranium and citronella grass, you’re in luck. We’ve devoted a whole article to comparing these two plants and explaining the differences. You can learn more about the differences between citronella geranium and citronella grass in our article Citronella Plant Versus Citronella Grass [https://www.gardeningchannel.com/citronella-plant-vs-citronella-grass/].
Citronella Grass vs. Lemongrass: Botany
Both citronella grass and lemongrass are part of the same family. As we’ve learned, the botanical name for lemongrass is Cymbopogon citratus. The botanical name for citronella grass is Cymbopogon nardus. (You might sometimes see it referred to as Cymbopogon winterianum.) Cymbopogon nardus is known in common speech as Java citronella, while Cymbopogon winterianum is known in common speech as ceylon citronella.
You may see some other random plants for sale at nurseries and garden centers under the name “citronella plant.” This is often done because the plants have a pleasing scent similar to that of the citronella. However, these other plants do not have the mosquito-repelling properties of true citronella plants.
Citronella grasses have more extensive root systems than lemongrass plants, making citronella grass better able to absorb water and nutrients. That’s why citronella plants tend to live such a long time. The two citronella grass varieties, Cymbopogon winterianum and Cymbopogon nardus, live five to eight years for C. winterianum and six to 10 years for C. nardus (with some reaching an astonishing 20 years).
Citronella Grass vs. Lemongrass: Appearance
Citronella grass and lemongrass do look alike, but citronella has a wider blade-shaped leaf than lemongrass. Citronella grass also has leaves tinged with red or magenta at the stem’s base, while this area is green like the rest of the foliage on lemongrass.
The mature size of the plants is another way to tell them apart. Mature lemongrass plants are between two feet and four feet tall and wide. Mature citronella grass can stretch up to six feet tall and four feet wide.
Lemongrass vs. Citronella: Mosquito Repellent
Both lemongrass and citronella have a citrusy scent when the leaves are crushed, so both are natural insect repellents. However, you won’t get the insect repellent effect simply by having citronella plants growing near you. You’ll need to crush some citronella grass or lemongrass leaves and strew them on the ground, or crush citronella grass or lemongrass against your skin, to get the insect repellent effect.
While lemongrass and citronella grass are both effective natural insect repellents, you’ll notice that different strains of mosquito react differently to these plants. Despite this, you’ll find that when the foliage is crushed, citronella grass and lemongrass are just as effective as commercial insect repellents.
Use the plants with caution against your skin, as it is possible they’ll cause an allergic reaction or irritated skin. Start by testing a small area, then waiting for a while to see if there is any adverse effect. If your skin remains clear, you’re free to apply the citronella grass or lemongrass to larger sections of skin.
Lemongrass vs. Citronella: Propagation
Lemongrass is easy to propagate from the stalks you’ll find at the grocery store. Soak the root ends in water and wait two to four weeks for roots to develop.
The plants are ready to be planted when the roots have reached between half an inch and one inch long. That’s your cue to plant lemongrass in rich, loamy soil with a neutral pH level (between 6.8 and 7.2).
Not sure what the pH level is in your soil? You can find out in our article How to Test pH in Your Soil.
Find lemongrass a spot that gets full sun. That’s at least six hours of direct sunshine each day. Lemongrass is hardy in zones 10 and 11, but gardeners in other zones will need to bring it inside once the weather gets too cold for it.
Citronella grass responds well to propagation by division. To start with, you’ll need mature, well established plants between two and three years old. Always start propagation with the healthiest plants in your garden so you get the best results. The best time to propagate citronella grass by division is in the fall.
Start by gently digging up the citronella grass, taking care not to damage its roots. Then divide the plant, leaving an equal portion of stems, leaves, and roots on each specimen. Clip the leaves back until they measure just six inches long, then move the divided citronella grass into new containers full of moist potting soil. You’ll see new leaf growth begin as the plant wakes up from dormancy in the spring.
Lemongrass vs. Citronella: Care Requirements
Lemongrass and citronella have very similar care requirements. In fact, their care requirements are so similar that you can grow lemongrass and citronella grass together.
Though both plants thrive in full sunshine (that’s at least six hours of direct sunlight every day), citronella grass will also tolerate partial shade. The USDA Hardiness Zones for lemongrass are 10 and 11, while for citronella grass it’s 10 through 12.
Lemongrass vs. Citronella: Culinary Uses
While lemongrass has a strong culinary presence, citronella just doesn’t belong in the kitchen. (That’s what was so alarming about the story where lemongrass and citronella got switched for consumption in tea!)
Apart from its usage in tea, lemongrass is a component of Indian, Indonesia, and Sri Lankan cuisine.
The stalk portion of lemongrass is what’s used in the kitchen. It’s available both in its fresh form and in a dried form.
In conclusion, there’s plenty that these two plants have in common. Both are clump-forming, and both plants have narrow, blade-like leaves emerging from the numerous stems that grow from their rhizomes. In addition to repelling mosquitoes and other garden pests, the plants are each well known for use in folk medicine and cosmetics, fragrance, and, in the case of lemongrass, food preparation. Both plants have a citrusy aroma, and both are perennial grasses in their native tropical regions.
But despite the plants having so much in common, you’ve learned it’s their differences that allow you to tell them apart. Mature lemongrass plants top out around four feet tall, while citronella grass can grow to reach a height of four feet tall. You can check the base of each plant’s foliage, where you’ll find that citronella grass is pink or red while lemongrass is green like the rest of the leaves. Now you’re an expert in citronella grass and lemongrass, able to distinguish between the two and care for them well.