For many years, Monica Wooya, a farmer in Busala village, Bulongo sub-county had one lemon grass (chai ssubi) plant behind her kitchen, from which she used to pick leaves to spice her tea.
However, when people started flocking her home to ask for some lemon grass to spice their tea, she decided to go commercial. Today, she has over 50 plants in her backyard, from which she regularly harvests leaves to sale.
Several of Kawooya’s neighbours have followed suit, interplanting lemon grass with bananas and maize in their backyard.
Lemon grass is a tender perennial plant with a mild melony fragrance and a lemon-citrus type taste. The stalks are too tough to eat, but they can be chopped and pounded to add flavour to fish or poultry sauces, and stir fry.
Lemon grass has long, thin, sharp grass-like gray-green leaves, and a spring onion like base. Under ideal conditions, it can grow up to six feet.
Locally referred to as chai subi (grass for tea), the bush aroma emitting plant was in the past mainly grown for domestic use. Of late however, a number of farmers have started growing it on commercial scale.
There is a big demand for the aromatic plant, especially among street side tea brewers in urban areas. Some farmers have also started distilling it.
“We carry out simple distillation, as a way of adding value to the lemon grass. Just one litre of lemon grass distillate fetches sh100,000,” Wooya reveals.
According to her, the best time to harvest the grass is early in the morning, the time when it emits that sweet aroma. If harvested later in the day, the extract will not be as strong.
According to Tenywa Kipala, a veteran lemon grass farmer, it takes 80kg of lemon grass to get a quarter of a litre of the high value multi-purpose essential oil. The oil can be used to make soap, detergents, pesticides and even skin ointments. It is also a natural mosquito repellant.
It is easy to multiply the bushy plant, by splitting it into several plantlets. Lemon grass is an ideal backyard crop as it does not require much space, or care. The crop can be harvested continuously for long.
For those without space in their backyard, lemongrass can be grown in a pot or any other container ad put on the verandah or balcony.
A 2006 a research in Israel found that lemon grass caused apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cells. Through in vitro studies, the researchers examined the effect of citral, a molecule found in lemon grass, on both normal and cancerous cells.
Using concentrations of citral equivalent to the quantity in a cup of tea (one gram of lemon grass in hot water), the researchers observed that citral induces programmed cell death in the cancerous cells, while the normal cells were left unharmed.
Lemon grass can grow from seed, but in Uganda it is mainly multiplied by separating the individual stalks, with roots attached, and replanting them. Lemongrass prefers a sandy-type soil, but likes the soil evenly moist, so a good layer of mulch is a must for this plant.
Studies have shown that lemon grass has antibacterial and antifungal properties. Mixed with pepper, it is a home therapy for menstrual troubles and nausea.
Drank as tea, it is an effective diuretic (aid in flushing the body of toxins and breaking down fat). Lemon grass is a good cleanser that helps detoxify the liver, pancreas, kidney, bladder and the digestive tract.
It cuts down uric acid, cholesterol, excess fats and other toxins in the body while stimulating digestion, blood circulation, and lactation.
It is said that lemon grass also helps improve the skin by reducing acne and pimples and acts as a muscle and tissue toner. It can also reduce blood pressure.
The leaves and base of this tender perennial are used as a flavor, particularly in fish and poultry dishes, and its essential oils are used medicinally.
How to prepare cough medicine
Take some strands of lemon grass, two or three cloves, a small piece of cinnamon stick and turmeric powder and boil with milk or water. Drain and cool. Drink the mixture to relieve cough and a cold.