Part Used: Oil extracted from the plant
In a Word: Bug repellent
Uses: Keeping bugs the hell off your skin
There are a number of grasses that produce aromatic oils in their stems and leaves, fragrant oils that have been distilled and used as perfume for thousands of years. In the Bible on finds verses referencing sweet smelling grasses. Aromatic grasses, and the oils they produced, were common articles in the Holy Land and in other ancient civilisations. Though native to India, the dried plants and the distilled oils were brought west by the spice merchants long before the birth of Christ. Both the oil and the dried plants were used in medicine, food flavouring, perfume, incense and last but not least, cosmetics.
Indeed, the ancients knew a number of sweet smelling grasses. There are in fact two grass families that produce fragrant oils on their leaves and stems. The first family is Cymbopogon and it has two members, C.citratus (lemon grass) and C.nardus (citronella). The second family, Andropogon, has several scented members, A.aromaticus, A.schoenanthus, and A.muricatus.
The Hebrew word keneh means sweet canes, and all of these plants were considered sweet canes in the ancient days. No one knows exactly which of the fragrant grasses were used by the Israelites and other ancient civilisations. They were all grown in India and their canes and their distilled oils were sent to the western spice markets. In reality, the Israelites probably knew all of them. The term Kenah was likely a generic term for aromatic grasses. To really mess with your minds, these plants are so closely related they can interbreed. We can hardly separate the sweet canes today, there is no hope of knowing exactly which sweet cane the Israelites used. As I said, kaneh was probably a generic term for sweet smelling grasses of which lemon grass was one.
There is evidence that the ancients used a variety of these sweet canes. When Pharaoh’s tombs dating to the twentieth and twenty-first dynasties were opened, the distinctive lemony smell of Andropogon Schoenanthus was smelled. 2000 years after the burial chambers were sealed, the perfume was still hanging around. That’s a long lasting perfume. Cymbopogon citratus was discovered in Gennesaret in an archaeological dig. The difference between the different grasses is down to their scents, which depends on the complex mixtures of the oils produced by the plants.
You may or may not be familiar with these scented grasses, as they are not well utilised in the West. The one that may ring some bells for you is Cymbopogon nardus or citronella. Have you ever bought citronella candles at the hardware store to keep the bugs away from the guests at a barbecue? Citronella is the steam-extracted oil from one of the sweet canes used by ancient cultures. The most notable effect of these oils is they repel insects, hence their use at your barbecues.
The ancients were familiar with this attribute. This action, bug repelling, does not carry the same punch that it did in the days of the Israelites. Egypt was fertile because it had good soil and lots of water. An abundance of water meant lots of insects, specifically mosquitoes. Mosquitoes carry malaria, which was bad news in the ancient world. The ancients burned citronella to keep the bugs away just as we do. However, they were worried about a little more than unsightly bumps on the legs. Keeping bugs away was a life or death situation.
As the aromatic grasses are native to India, it pays to look at what the Indians had to say about them. The product came from India and with it came the local people’s knowledge of the plants. You will be relieved to learn that the plants were used interchangeably by the Indian physicians. Generally speaking the plants were used to treat infections, pain, indigestion, restlessness, respiratory complaints and to reduce body temperature. And very specifically, they were all used to keep bugs off and away. We will now look at the plants more specifically.
Lemon grass, or Cymbopogon citratus is mentioned in “Indian Plants and Drugs” written in 1908. The author gives us a pretty specific description on how to use the plant.
“This grass is usually used in the form of infusion, four ounces of grass to one pint of boiling water. It is an excellent stomachic to children; of much use in typhoid fevers; given with black pepper it is useful in disordered menstruation and in the congestive and neuralgic forms of dysmenorrhoea. It is carminative and tonic to the intestinal mucous membrane, useful in vomiting and diarrhoea.”
The writer comments on the oil distilled from the grass. The distillation of lemon grass oil is an ancient practice its oil is used for all the disorders the grass is used for, painful digestive complaints being the most prominent amongst them. Everything from vomiting to gastric irritability to cramping was treated with a fraction of a drop of lemon grass oil on a sugar cube. We also find mention of its use on painful joints.
“Externally it is rubefacient. Mixed with equal parts of pure coconut oil it makes an excellent liniment for lumbago, chronic rheumatism, neuralgia, sprains, and other painful affections; it is also a good application for ringworm.”
Cymbopogon citratus, or lemon grass, contains about .4% of volatile oil. Its volatile oil is 65% citrol, 12% myrcene, and 23% sundry oils. Lemon grass oil has been found to be anti-microbial, particular against gram positive bacteria and fungi. It has also been found to be pain killing, central nervous system depressing, fever reducing, and anti-oxidant. It seems that lemon grass oil applied to the joints will relieve the pain felt in arthritic joint conditions. Lemongrass oil is a symptomatic treatment that is it takes the pain out of the joint but does not do anything to attack the underlying condition. That’s ok, painkillers are necessary evils and we have other plants that help joints heal themselves.
Cymbopogon nardus or citronella is used for the purposes the first two sweet grasses were used for. Like the others, it found its way into treating feverish conditions and as a topical application for rheumatism. This plant’s oils have been researched and a number of interesting facts have been determined. In the laboratory citronella oil has been proven to be lethal to bacteria and fungus. Specifically, it has been found to be as effective against some gram positive bacteria as is penicillin. Citronella’s oil is made up of citronellol, geraniol, and citronellol. In addition, it contains about thirty different minor constituents that affect its lemony fragrance.
Our next sweet cane, Andropogon muriaticus, is a plant we find listed in the Sanskrit Materia Medica. It was used as a cooling drug in fevers and infectious illness for a very long time. The plant lessens the symptoms of fever, which include thirst and high body temperature. Like its relations, it is used in irritable stomach conditions and topically applied in inflammation. It is made into cooling drinks for those that are sick and those that are merely hot. A lot of tropical medicine was dedicated to dealing with fevers. Remember, hot countries had malaria and other feverish conditions aplenty. The physicians had to have plants that would drop the temperature before the brains got cooked in their private crock-pot.
The Hamdard pharmacopoeia of Eastern medicine had this to say of this plant, “Tonic to heart and brain, blood purifier, useful in headache, palpitation, refrigerant, stomachic, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, diuretic, and emmenagogue. Externally a paste of the roots is rubbed on the skin to remove oppressive heat from the body. Its essence is used to check the vomiting of cholera, and is used in perfumery.”
Andropogon schoenanthus or ginger grass is distilled and the oil produced, rusa oil or nimar oil, is used in perfume making and medicine. The plant is used to soothe a digestive tract in spasms, to reduce gas, and to increase sweating. The rusa oil is used as a topical application in painful joints and muscles.
The common denominator in all the sweet canes is volatile oils. These oils have been proven to be active in the human body and to accomplish what the Indian physicians said they did. Citral, which has been found to be antihistaminic, antiseptic, bactericidal, cancer preventative, fungicide, and sedative. Citronellal has been found to be antiseptic and sedative. Citronellic acid kills intestinal parasites. Citronellol has been found to be bactericidal, candidacidal, fungicidal, and sedative. These plants have been proven to kill bacteria and it is believed that they reduce fevers by killing the source of the problem, microbes having taken up shop in the body. At this point the plants have not been proven to have specific body temperature lowering chemicals, though that discovery may be in the pipeline.
If you live in an area with a Vietnamese community, you will be able to buy fresh lemon grass and give all of these uses a try. Most produce markets catering to this community will have it in the green section, as it is a favourite Vietnamese flavouring agent. Lemon grass makes a delightful beverage and it is useful in feverish conditions and in stomach cramps. The standard prescription is to add 4 ounces of lemon grass to one pint boiling water. Let the herb steep for twenty minutes. One pint should be drunk each day. Unlike many of our herbal medicines, this one is actually pleasant enough that you might consider drinking it in health and in disease. This is a rare occurrence.
If you do not have access to fresh lemon grass, you can experiment with either lemon grass oil or citronella oil. Both are readily available at health food stores, if they don’t have them in stock, they will be able to order them. Sadly, a lot of con artists have moved into the health food industry. When you purchase either oil, you need to make certain the package is marked with “pure essential oil” of Cymbopogon citratus or Andropogon nardus. There are many companies selling little bottles of chemically created, fake plant oils. The only thing natural about these synthesised oils is the paper label on the bottle. Volatile oils medicinal action is based on the chemicals that make them up. You can make an oil that smells like lemongrass oil, but it won’t have lemon grass oils medicinal action. Make sure what you are buying is the real thing and nothing else.
The next scam out there is some companies sell products marked “real essential oil” that in fact have only a touch of the real stuff in the bottle. In this case the bottle contains 10% essential oil and 90% sunflower oil. The bottle must say 100% pure essential oil on the label. Pay attention to these details, as they are critically important. More than once I have told someone to use lemon grass oil on a joint and have discovered later that it didn’t work. On closer examination, I have discovered the product they bought was either fake lemon grass oil or diluted lemon grass oil. Essential oil is expensive, but you only need a few drops, it goes a long way.
The oil has been used to reduce the pain in joints and you will not be displeased with its action. The best thing to do is to make a salve with it. I make a lemon grass salve that is fantastic to keep joint pain under control and to kill infections on the skin. Mix one-cup olive oil with one-cup beeswax and one cup lanolin. Melt this is a pan and let cool. Once cool add 10 ml citronella or lemon grass oil. Stir in completely and store in a sealed container. Just apply it when pain strikes. Its great for sore muscles, sore joints, and as a spread over superficial wounds!
When it comes to insect repelling, all of the sweet cane oils can be used to keep bugs away. This of course applies to mosquitoes, but some believe they also repel the ticks causing all kinds of health problems in the modern age. The best part of these insect-repelling oils is they do not carry the same risks associated with some of the agent orange-like chemical bug killers currently on the market. You can spray these about yourself and the house to your hears content and not worry about anybody growing a second head.
History: Ancient Indian remedy for many health complaints, including bugs!!
Science: Volatile oils make it an active bacteria killer and bug repellent
Practitioners’ Opinion: A natural, safe choice for repelling insects
Disclaimer: The author makes no guarantees as to the the curative effect of any herb or tonic on this website, and no visitor should attempt to use any of the information herein provided as treatment for any illness, weakness, or disease without first consulting a physician or health care provider. Pregnant women should always consult first with a health care professional before taking any treatment.