While accurate, the name of this plant is intriguing. Tingling one's
nostrils, it is similar to a blade of grass with a lemony fragrance. The
hybrid word reminds one of fantastic creatures, of chimeras such as
half-camel and half-leopard. And yet this natural species is no fluke.
It enjoys quite a few uses, from flavoring Thai cuisine to its essential
oil having served for centuries, millennia perhaps, as an insecticide. It
owes this last application to the presence of geraniol and citronellol,
chemicals from the family of terpenes. Why does the plant make them? As
chemical weapons, to deter insects and other pests from feeding on it. Cats
also hate the citronella smell.
Cymbopogon is a genus consisting of about 55 herbaceous species from warm
and tropical regions. Native to the Philippines, it has dispersed throughout
Asia, helped no doubt in such dissemination by people of various countries
flavoring their dishes with this seemingly innocuous grass.
It is a highly decorative plant, for the garden or the terrace. The long
leaves of this tall grass, which rises up to 1-2 ft curve handsomely, not
unlike water jets spurting from a fountain.
My book, Citrus: A History, University of Chicago Press, 200, covers a
related set of topics.