The cymbopogons are a genus of aromatic grasses which grow in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. Many people have met the refreshing and therapeutic flavors and fragrances of these grasses without knowing what they are or the many benefits that they provide.
When you enjoy the delicious taste of Thai soups, you are imbibing the health-promoting blessings of lemongrass, one of the fifty-five species of cymbopogons. When you smell the mosquito-repelling aroma of citronella burning in a candle, this is another cymbopogon.
Many fine perfumes and cosmetic products contain the geranium-rose scent of palmarosa, another cymbopogon. Others like jamrosa and gingergrass are still relatively unknown, their healing powers and economic benefits waiting to be discovered.
To a Cambodian or Vietnamese cook, lemongrass is an indispensable ingredient for countless recipes. Once transported across Asia by camel along the spice routes, lemongrass was used in Europe in herbal beers and spiced wines. But in Southeast Asian countries where the grass originates, this and other cymbopogon relatives are much more than simple spices for curries and condiments. Fields of aromatic grasses sparkling with monsoon rain or undulating in a warm breeze are treasure troves of botanical wealth.
In this age of expensive, high-tech inventions, designed to simplify life, but somehow making it more complex, it is reassuring to remember that a humble grass can solve a multitude of problems for struggling humanity. In low-lying tropical areas where periodic flooding brings water-borne diseases, plantations of lemongrass help disperse the flooded fields by drawing moisture upward and evaporating it from the leaves, thereby removing the primary source of illnesses.
Distillation of the grass produces an essential oil and hydrosol (distillate water) which contain powerful antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal properties that are used effectively against infectious and inflammatory symptoms. After distillation, the spent grass is fed to cows to increase their production of healthy milk, which in turn strengthens human immunity. The dry grass is also used for secondary cottage industries such as making paper and thatching roofs, as well as for firing the next round of distillation. When planted and used for mulch in gardens and orchards, lemongrass increases the fertility of the soil. In this way, one common cymbopogon species provides numerous ecological, medical, agricultural, nutritional and economic benefits.
To a farmer in a subtropical landscape, fields of jamrosa grass represent an important source of income where other crops will not thrive. Jamrosa, a hybrid between palmarosa and citronella, provides an essential oil which is used to impart a rosy-grassy note to natural perfumes.
To the enlightened chemist thinking of a future beyond toxic petrochemicals, fields of lemongrass, citronella and palmarosa are solar-powered, chemical factories that provide important plant-derived molecules. These natural molecules are used in numerous industries, pharmaceutical preparations, disinfectants and insect-repelling products. Vitamin A is synthesized from crude, fossil oil, but it was once produced from lemongrass oil and will be again as the price of crude oil and demand for natural products increases.
To a perfumer, fields of sweetly scented palmarosa grass are the source of a fine essential oil used in high-quality perfume blends and cosmetics. Unlike the immune-damaging and skin-irritating synthetic aroma chemicals used in modern perfumes, naturally derived essential oils such as palmarosa have immune-enhancing and skin regenerating effects. Palmarosa is also known as “fever grass” for its cooling, anti-pitta effects, which are the result of antibiotic and antiviral constituents present in the essential oil.
Palmarosa oil is very beneficial for skin conditions, as it hydrates and balances the production of sebum. It is used for inflammatory skin conditions such as acne and dermatitis, for regenerating dry and wrinkled skin, for fungal conditions and for helping to prevent and resolve scar tissue. When used in a diffuser for atmospheric fragrancing, palmarosa fills the environment with a sweet, floral presence that uplifts the spirit and helps revitalize exhausted nerves.
To an Ayurvedic herbalist, fields of gingergrass are living pharmacies. Therapeutically, gingergrass is one of the most important of the cymbopogon oils, yet it is still relatively unknown in the West. Unlike the rich floral rose and geranium notes of palmarosa and jamrosa, gingergrass has a soft, warm, spicy, earthy, herbal and cumin-like fragrance with a woody undertone.
When a few drops are inhaled directly from the palms or in steam inhalations, this oil relieves sinus congestion and allergies. By opening the channels of prana in the sinuses, it energizes mental energy, enhances alertness and reduces sinus headaches. One of its most important uses in traditional Ayurvedic medicine is for massage, where its significant anti-inflammatory properties reduce pain, swelling and stiffness in the muscles and joints.
The next time you find a piece of lemongrass floating in your soup, think of fields of aromatic grasses sparkling with monsoon rain, offering us medicines, perfumes, prosperity, and ecological healing.