UNION — Ah, summer in the South — hot days, cold drinks and citronella candles, spread across porches in futile attempts to fend off the thousands of small biting bugs who seem to love the season as much as we do.
Beware. If you want to be mosquito free, better check to be certain your citronella is the real McCoy.
Citronella may sound like something a scientist whipped up, but it is actually a plant-based essential oil full of lemony-smelling chemicals that perfumers love and bugs hate. Shockingly, there is not a plant called citronella from which you get citronella oil.
The citronella plant found in most garden stores and online is a type of geranium that smells similar to true citronella oil. Despite its name, this geranium doesn’t produce that same cocktail of chemicals found in the true oil. While we might not be able to smell the difference, bugs certainly can, and studies have shown that oil from this geranium is completely useless for fending off insects.
There is also a way to make a synthetic citronella oil from turpentine from pine trees, but most don’t have the capabilities to process a vat of pine sap.
True citronella oil is produced from lemongrass, the very same that is used in tea and Asian cooking.
Can planting a few lemongrass patches solve your issues? Well, yes and no. The living, growing plant does repel bugs, but only a little. A lot more than a few plants are needed to beat back the infestation seen every year. Still, don’t let me dissuade you from planting some. You can use it to make your own natural mosquito spray by simmering a few leaves in water for a day or two until the water turns yellow.
Lemongrass isn’t the only plant one can use to repel bugs. Members of the mint family have also been shown to repel insects. Peppermint, lavender, lemon balm and basil are all members of the mint family scientifically proven to repel bugs. Plant a little outside for light, broad coverage, or boil some for natural bug spray. For fast relief, crush a few fresh leaves and rub them on the skin.
From there, there are a variety of other plants that can help repel bugs in different ways. Marigolds, for instance, are not known to keep away mosquitos. However, if you plant them near other plants, they’ll help ward away the pests that prey on them. Four o’clocks will get rid of Japanese beetles. Garlic and leeks help keep a multitude of insects from a veggie patch. Catnip can ward off cockroaches.
This is by no means all the plants that can help you and your garden stay bug-free this summer. There are more plants with insect-repelling uses in America than this newspaper has room to run. If you’d like to give at-home bug slaying a whirl, do some research online or with your local green thumb about the plants that might work best for your situation.
Most plants hate pests just as much as we do. Plants deal with them in a variety of ways, whether it be with thorns, little fuzzy hairs that insects cannot walk on, or — most beneficial to us — by creating special oils with smelly volatile chemicals in them that attract beneficial bugs and repel the rest. If we are clever, we can use the oils to reap the same benefits that plants do.
Wishing you all a bug-free summer.
Catherine Garner is a recent graduate of The University of South Carolina Honors College with a degree in Biological Sciences. She is one of two summer interns working through the end of July at Piedmont Physic Garden.