In the garden, lemon grass forms handsome clumps that reach 3 to 4 feet tall and nearly as wide, with lime green leaves rising from swollen bases.
When harvested, the bulbous stems look like scallions, but pale yellow and more fibrous. When you cut them, the stems release essential oils, which immediately perfume the air with the mouthwatering aroma of freshly cut lemon combined with the clean bite of ginger.
Thai and Vietnamese cooks use lemon grass in marinades, stir-fries, curries, and soups. But this fragrant herb isn't limited to Asian cuisine. Make a sugar-syrup infusion to spice up lemonade or to use as the start of a dessert such as Lemon Grass-Coconut Sorbet.
Fresh lemon grass can be hard to find at the supermarket. But you can buy a small potted plant now, and you'll grow a large clump of your own by summer's end.
What lemon grass needs
EXPOSURE: Full sun.
SOIL: Rich, with good drainage.
WATER: Ample during growing season; less in winter, when it goes dormant.
FEED: Monthly with half-strength fish emulsion during the growing season.
CLIMATE NOTES: Cymbopogon citratus is a perennial in Sunset climate zones 12, 13, 16, 17, 23, 24, H1, and H2. Find your zone . Elsewhere, grow it as an annual or treat it like a geranium or other tender perennial by bringing the entire plant or a potted cutting indoors for the winter.
HARVEST: When stems are about 1/2 inch thick. Push an outside stem to the side, then twist and pull it off. Discard leaves and woody outer layers; save the white inner core.
PLANT SOURCES: Nichols Garden Nursery (800/422-3985).