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January 26, 2011

Scented Garden: Growing and Enjoying Palmarosa (Lemonade Recipe)

Palmarosa plant

by Elise Pearlstine

Victoria’s Note: Wildlife ecologist, natural perfumer and avid gardener, Elise Pearlstine has an intimate connection to the world around her through her diverse interests. Her philosophy may be summed by the word “bellyflowers” (also the name of her own blog.) Bellyflowers are aromatic wildflowers so tiny that you have to get on your belly to smell them. It is about slowing down and taking in your surroundings.
In this series of guest articles, Elise will be sharing with us her passion and enthusiasm for scented plants as well as
her extensive knowledge of gardening. Please welcome Elise with her first post on palmarosa, a fascinating grass that smells of roses and green citrus rinds.

If you chew on a blade of palmarosa grass you get a sharp, sweet and tangy taste that is very slightly floral, almost citrusy and the smell of the essential oil seems to sneak into your nose. The smell is rich and floral, seemingly more complex than the essential oil. The plant from which I have picked the blade grows next to the front porch of a lovely small house in Miami. It has exploded from a small houseplant to a grassy clump with stalks over eight feet tall and is mingling with a large Jasmine auriculatum. Seeds cover the tops of the palmarosa stalks where it bends over the sidewalk and steps. It is a rangy plant with a reed-like center stem and grass blades growing along the sides. New tender growth is coming up from the bottom of the clump and will soon replace the part I have cut.

Palmarosa (Cymbopogon martini), sometimes called rosha grass, is a tall grass that is native to Southeast Asia, especially India and Pakistan. It is related to lemongrass and citronella. It can be grown either from cuttings or seeds. Seeds may need an overnight soaking to enhance germination and like to be kept moist during this time. Palmarosa is a tropical plant and likes a moist, sunny spot in tropical and sub-tropical zones. In temperate areas I would suggest planting it in small indoor pots in the early spring and then moving it outside when the weather warms up.

The scent of palmarosa is rosy, floral, sweet and reminiscent of roses and geraniums. The essential oil has been used to adulterate rose oils and can be used in soaps for a long-lasting rosy scent. It is also often used in skin care products. In addition, the plant is used in savory dishes in India and West Africa and, when used in cooking, can assist in fighting bacterial contamination as well as in the digestion of fatty foods.

I have cut the top four feet of the plant and will harvest the seeds, dry the stalks and leaves, and then chop up the plant material to do a small distillation. I might even mince a few leaves and add them to alcohol to see if that gathers the scent. Or the leaves might just add a slight flowery note to fresh lemonade from the home-grown lemons in my refrigerator. I always enjoy the rich floral scent of palmarosa as it warms in the sugar syrup along with the lemon peels. The subtle floral aspect it lends to the tangy lemonade is wonderful.

Palmarosa lemon syrup

Palmarosa Lemonade

While the rosy-citrus note of palmarosa adds a special accent to lemonade, other flavorings can be used instead such as lemongrass or mint.

2 cups sugar
1 cup water
Rind of 1 lemon, cut into strips
Pinch of salt
Juice of 6 lemons
1-2 tsp minced palmarosa leaves

Mix together 2 cups sugar, 1 cup water, the rind of one large lemon cut into strips and a pinch of salt and boil it for about 5 minutes. At the very end, add a large teaspoon of chopped palmarosa leaves, trying to use the younger, fresher ones. Let the syrup cool and steep. Meanwhile, squeeze 6 lemons to add to the syrup, filter the liquid, and fill a sterilized quart jar. Store in the refrigerator. Use 1-2 tablespoons in a glass of water with ice.

Sources for palmarosa: check your local nursery for palmarosa plants. Seeds can be found online at ebay or bonanza.com.

Photography by Elise Pearlstine.

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