Citronella Culture
Answered by: Inge Poot
Question from: Sandi Perrot
Posted on: March 4, 2002

I have a citronella plant. I would like information on how to care for it. I had one last year and planted it in the ground, but it died. I have a baby one and would like any information you may have on caring and growing it. Should it be inside or out. Does it need a lot of water or not. Should I repot it into a bigger pot and when? What does it mean when the leaves turn yellow? Any information would be greatly appreciated before I end up losing this one.

P.S. I live on the Mississipi Gulf Coast.

The MS Gulf coast is in zone 9. The true citronella, Cympopogon nardus is a relative of lemon grass and should get the same culture: well-drained moist soil in sun. It looks like a coarse grass. It comes from Sri Lanka and Java and therefore cannot survive any frost and should be kept above 7 degrees Celsius or 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It has to be wintered indoors in zone 9. You would therefore do better keeping it in a pot and moving the pot gradually into full sun during the frost free part of the year. Repot into a larger pot when the roots come out of the bottom of the pot.

However the true citronella is rare in North America. This common name is also applied to other herbs with a lemony scent- all adding up to confusion! The citrosa geranium, Pelargonium ‘Citrosa’, is also referred to as citrosa by some authors and that may very well be the plant that you have, since it is quite common in North America. This plant has leaves reminding one more of a deeply indented maple leaf in shape and the leaves are a bit hairy. If this is the plant that you have, it will need a well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil and will develop the best scent in full sun. It is planted to keep away biting insects such as mosquitoes, but does not seem to be very effective in this task. However it is a fine scent plant.

It is rated hardy for zones 10 to the tropics and would have to come into the house for the coldest part of the winter. When the plant does not get enough light or the soil is too sour or has become devoid of available nutrients, the lower leaves will turn yellow and fall off.

You need to repot it once a year to refresh the soil and gradually move it into full sun when you put it back out of doors. If the roots grow out of the bottom of the pot it should be potted on into a larger pot.

Letting the soil in the pot dry out completely kills a lot of the roots. This would also result in yellow leaves as the plant frantically tries to adjust the number of leaves that transpire water to the reduced number of roots that can take up water.

Also when you take the plant in and out of doors you can also expect yellow leaves, because the plant has to replace plants grown for high light with leaves that can deal with low light or vice versa.

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