Citronella plants are known for their distinctive scent—but do they really repel mosquitoes?
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Aerial shot of citronella plant with green leaves
Credit: Maria Jose Ceballos/Getty Images

Spring through early summer is the perfect time to plan out your potted plants, and if you're hunting for a new addition to your garden this year, consider the citronella plant. Ideal for window boxes or patio pots, the citronella plant features green, lacy leaves and pretty pink blooms.

While the citronella plant—aka Pelargonium graveolens—shares a name with the grassy plant used to stave off mosquitoes, it's actually a type of scented geranium. Citronella oil is produced from citronella grass, which is part of the Cymbopogon genus. Like the grass, the citronella plant exudes a distinct scent, but instead of that grassy odor, it smells more citrusy.

Taking care of a citronella plant is relatively simple, and if you meet its needs, you can enjoy pink flowers in the summer months. Here's everything you need to know about how to grow citronella plants, according to the experts.

Does the Citronella Plant Repel Mosquitoes?

The citronella plant has a lovely lemony smell, which some people believe may fend off pests. But don't get your hopes up. John Saltiel, a gardener at the United States Botanic Garden, says simply planting citronella likely won't affect insects.

Crushing the plant's aromatic leaves and rubbing them on your skin might repel bugs, but don't expect store-bought bug repellant-like results. "I've used it myself, and I noticed effects for a very short period, which isn't very practical," Saltiel says.

Citronella Plant Care

The citronella plant can live in a pot inside your home, but it will probably be happiest outdoors. Tim Pollak, assistant manager and outdoor floriculturist of plant production at the Chicago Botanic Garden, recommends keeping it outside in a container so you can better control the light and moisture, and then bring it indoors for the winter months if you live in a cooler climate. The citronella plant will survive outdoors year-round in hardiness zones 9b through 11, meaning that the citronella plant is a perennial in those specific zones.

Light

More light is better for citronella plants, which tend to get leggy without it. "You'll have a stronger plant with more flowers," says Pollak. While they can tolerate full sun, they prefer bright, filtered light—for example, beneath a tree or on the west side of your home, where it won't get a full day of sun.

Soil

Citronella plants can grow happily in many types of soil. Choose a potting medium that keeps the roots moist between waterings, such as a peat moss-based potting mix. "Don't use regular heavy garden soil, which tends not to hold water," Pollak says. "You want the soil to maintain some moisture between watering." A soil that contains a mix of perlite, peat moss, and garden soil can also encourage growth.

Water

Even if your citronella plant is outside, don't rely on the rain to water it. Check the soil regularly, and thoroughly water it when the top few inches feel dry. Don't neglect it for too long. "The lower leaves will start to turn yellow if it gets too dry, and then you'll start to lose the older leaves," says Pollak.

Temperature and Humidity

Citronella plants are robust, so they can handle temperatures from the upper 30s to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. If it's colder than freezing or hotter than 90 degrees, bring your plant inside. Both conditions can easily damage the plant. High moisture levels, Saltiel says, can also cause them to rot—they prefer humidity in the 40 to 70 percent range.

Fertilizer

Maintaining a healthy plant with fertilizer can help encourage flowering in the summer months. Pollak recommends fertilizing citronella plants once a month when they're actively growing in the spring and summer; then, stop fertilizing in the fall. Choose a well-balanced fertilizer that contains magnesium for optimal growth.

How to Propagate a Citronella Plant

If you'd rather not start a citronella plant from seed, you can easily grow citronella from a cutting.

  1. Choose your cutting. With a pair of scissors or pruners, cut two to three inches from a healthy stem. The cutting should have two nodes (the bumps that grow stems, leaves, and buds).
  2. Cut off all but two leaves. To ensure the stem can root, only leave two leaves from the stem, ideally at the tip of the cutting.
  3. Add rooting hormone. Unlike with succulents, you don't need to let the stem fully dry before planting it. However, adding a store-bought rooting hormone to the bottom of the cutting may aid growth.
  4. Pot the cutting. Stick the cutting, bottom end first, into a small pot with soil. Make sure to keep the leaves moist—you can do that by spritzing them regularly or creating a greenhouse over the cutting with the lid of a cherry tomato container. An amply moist environment, Pollak says, will help the plant root. You should have roots within a month!

Citronella Plant vs. Citronella Grass

While they share nicknames, the citronella plant and citronella grass are from two different genuses. "They aren't anywhere near related," says Saltiel. "One is more similar to a geranium in your flower bed, and the other is more similar to your grass."

Their only similarity, says Pollak, is they share a distinct smell—and the oil from a citronella plant might fend off some mosquitoes for a short period of time if the leaves are crushed and rubbed directly onto the skin. To repel swaths of bugs, you're better off using a product containing citronella oil derived from citronella grass.