How to Care for The Citronella Plant?

Citronella plant

A true citronella plant looks a lot like lemongrass.  It is a well-loved plant that sometimes is purchased for its properties to repel mosquitoes; however, it is not actually a mosquito repellant plant. 

The essential oils can be pulled from the plant to create a repellant or soaps and lotions with a nice smell.  Studies have shown that doing this may only provide a small amount of repellant for a short time. 

The citronella plant grows in clumps, much like monkey grass or spider plants.  It provides a nice citrus scent that compliments many other bouquets. 

It also grows well with many other plants and can complement landscaping in beautiful and subtle ways.  If you are looking for a complete guide on how to add this plant to your garden and keep it healthy, keep reading. 

The Best Conditions to Help Your Citronella Thrive

The Citronella Plant grows well both inside, as a houseplant, or outside.  It is very hardy and grows year-round in USDA plant zones 9 through 11.  This includes about half of the United States, but if you are curious to find out what zone you are in you can find a map here.  

If you live in other zones, don’t worry, you can still grow the citronella plant, you just need to make sure that it comes inside before the first frost.  You can also plant it as an annual if you are growing it outdoors in regions that are colder. 

This plant originates from the tropical areas of Asia, so it is best suited to those tropical conditions.  That said, it isn’t a picky plant and will grow anywhere that it gets enough sunlight, soil drainage, and proper watering. 

The type of soil it prefers is loamy soil that drains well.  Citronella grows best with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer once a year.  The best time of year to plant the Citronella Plant if you are growing it outside is in spring.  If you are growing it inside, then you can feel free to start your plants no matter the time of year.    

Water and Sunlight Needs of the Citronella Plant

The citronella plant requires a part to full sun.  It does best in areas around the house that gets morning sun and afternoon shade.  About 6 hours of sun a day is best.  The Citronella plant grows well in the southern half of the United States and will die in harsh winter conditions.  If you live in the northern half of the United States, consider planting the Citronella Plant annually. 

This plant thrives best in soil with a pH of 6.5, with plenty of organic matter.  It prefers to be watered often.  The roots should not be left wet though, so make sure that the soil it is planted in drains well.  If you live in a wet climate, consider planting your citronella plant on a ridge.  This technique will allow the proper drainage of the soil and provide optimum conditions for the plant.

Variations of the Citronella Plant

Scented Geranium, or Citronella Geranium

Oftentimes this version of the citronella plant is sold as “mosquito plant” but it looks more like parsley instead of clumping grass.  It also only smells like citronella, and it cannot be harvested for citronella essential oil.  It is not a mosquito repellant, but it is aesthetically pleasing and provides a wonderful citrus scent. 

Ceylon Citronella

This variety of the Citronella plant is what is most often found in home gardens.  It does well as ornamental grass.  It also repels some pests in the garden.  It can grow up to 3 feet tall and can be used to harvest the citronella essential oil. 

Java Citronella

This version of the Citronella plant was made popular in Indonesia and has broader leaves than the traditional Ceylon Citronella.  It also grows faster and reaches heights of about 4 feet.  If you are looking for a version of the citronella plant that propagates easily, this variety does best. 

West Indian Lemongrass

Also used to harvest citronella oil for mosquito repellant, the West Indian Lemongrass provides an abundant harvest.  It is also popular in cooking and grows to a height of about 4 feet.  Although it is called lemongrass, it is part of the citronella plant family. 

East Indian Lemongrass

This variety of the citronella plant is native to India and is typically used to flavor food.  It is also used to harvest oil that can be used to add scent to cosmetics, soaps, and lotions.  It grows very tall, about 6 feet, and the clumps spread up to 3 feet wide. 

Palmarosa or Gingergrass

This is the wild version of the citronella plant and the most abundant source for essential oils on record.  As far back as we can date, this version of the citronella plant has been gathered to provide topical medical treatments.  Currently, there are studies that show promise for some of these ancient practices. 

Citronella as a Mosquito Repellant

As mentioned above, simply having a citronella plant doesn’t decrease your chances of being bitten by a mosquito. 

The citronella smell that the plants naturally produce provides a nice fragrance but doesn’t deter the pests.  It is the harvesting of the plant, and the use of the essential oils that provide the best repellant.  Citronella essential oils, however, evaporate very quickly. 

This means that even the strongest citronella essential oil only provides a light repellant that doesn’t last very long.  More information about scientific studies showing the factors related to this can be found here

How to Propagate the Citronella Plant?

Planting from Seeds

Like most grass, citronella grows from seeds.  These can be difficult to find locally.  If you are looking for a specific variety of citronella plants, then you may have to purchase your seeds online.  Once you have your seeds, they can be planted in small pots. 

It is recommended that you use a seed-raising soil mixture for best germination.  Also, the pots that you plant your seeds in should be kept at a constant temperature of about 64 degrees. 

It may be necessary to use a heating mat during this process for the best results.  The soil should be kept moist, but not overly wet, and the plants can be transferred to another pot or to the garden once they reach about 3 inches tall. 

Dividing your Citronella Plants for Propagation

The best time of year to divide your citronella plants is in the fall.  You will need to dig down and expose the roots of the plant.  Next, loosen the dirt from the roots and lift it from the soil. 

Separate and cut the roots into equal pieces, and re-plant in pots.  If you live in warmer areas of the United States, and you are not worried about frost, then you can also plant the divisions in new spots in the garden. 

Transplanting your Citronella Plant

Since some variations of the citronella plant can grow as tall as 6 feet, and most of the variations can grow as wide as 3 feet, transplanting may be necessary.  If you decide that you need to move your plant, first find a good spot. 

Once you have found a good spot to move it to, prepare the soil by loosening it and adding fertilizer.  You will want to prepare the soil about a week before transplanting occurs. 

Once you have prepared the soil, dig a hole that is two times the width of the root system.  Place the citronella plant in the hole and fill it in with the prepared soil.  Water the transplant well and keep it moist for the first few months. 

Things That Grow Well with the Citronella Plant

Citronella is a clumping grass; it does not spread through runners like other grasses.  But the clumps can grow as much as 3 feet wide, so make sure that you give your plant plenty of space to grow.  It is not invasive, however, because of the width of the plant, it can crowd other plants. 

When planting other plants next to citronella, make sure that there is at least 24 inches of space between the citronella plant and the next plant.  Rue does not pare well as a neighbor to the citronella plant, so keep them separate in your garden. 

Things that grow well with the citronella plant are:

  • Vinca
  • Hibiscus
  • Shrub Rose
  • Lavender
  • Marigold
  • Catnip
  • Zinnia
  • Rosemary
  • Lemon Balm
  • Bee Balm
  • Thyme

Common Problems of the Citronella Plant and How to Solve Them

Leaf Blight

Leaf blight is a fungus, and most grasses are susceptible to this.  Since the citronella plant is grass, this is a common problem. 

You can see signs of leaf blight with a discoloration of the lower leaves.  The upper leaves become quickly infected in more humid conditions.  Plant death can occur if left untreated.  If your citronella plant starts showing signs of leaf blight, consider using an antifungal spray designed for plants. 

Dark Spots or Lesions on Young Leaves

If your citronella plant ends up spending prolonged periods of time in rainy or humid conditions, then partial leaf death can occur.  This can lead to the stunted growth of the citronella plant.  If left unattended, the entire plant will die. 

If you find this happening, ensure that there is good spacing between your plants and that they are getting enough light. 

Additionally, you can prevent this from happening by ensuring that dead leaves and debris from falling are cleaned up in your garden.  If you know this is a problem in your area, you can use a copper-based fungicide sprat to protect new leaves as they grow. 

Spider Mites

These pests reside on the underside of leaves and eat away at the leaves leaving little holes.  They are difficult to detect, and you’re more likely to see the webbing left behind by these spider mites.  As spider mites spread and reproduce, they can kill a plant, even one as large as a citronella plant. 

You can treat your spider mite infestation by trimming away any badly infested leaves.  Also, consider spraying your citronella plant with water to knock the mites off daily. 

Doing this for about a week should help.  If the mites are still causing a problem, you can rinse your plant in a sulfur spray as well.  Remember that using chemicals in your garden also kills off good insects that keep these mites at bay. 

How to Make Citronella Essential Oil?

To harvest essential oil from the citronella plant, you want to make sure it is fully grown.  This takes about 7 or 8 months from germination.  A fully grown citronella plant can be harvested every 3 to 4 months for oil extraction. 

Once the plant is fully grown, you can remove leaves by cutting them from the base of the plant.  The leaves you choose should be healthy, and as close to the bottom of the plant as possible. 

Once you have your leaves cut, you can dry them in a dehydrator, or leave them in the sun with plenty of air circulation.  The goal is to ensure that no mold grows on the leaves as they dry. 

Once they are dry, gather about 4 ounces of the leaves and place them in a clean mason jar. Cover the leaves completely in isopropyl alcohol. Leave the mixture for 3 to 4 days, then strain and reserve the liquid. 

Remember citronella essential oils can be harmful if ingested and should only be used as a topical agent. 

Where to buy the Citronella Plant?

Depending on where you are located, the citronella plant should be available wherever plants are sold.  You can find variations of this plant in nurseries, local hardware stores, and online.  As always, when purchasing your citronella plant online, be sure to read the reviews. 

Make sure that other customers have been happily satisfied with the quality of the plant they are receiving. 

Check the description of the online sale, to make sure that you know whether you are getting germinated seeds, seeds, or a young plant.  If you are buying your plant during the colder months, consider keeping it inside or maintaining it as a potted plant year-round.