Mosquitoes are the insect everyone loves to hate, now more than ever because of the Zika virus. Here in the subtropics, we know that these insects have long been associated with physical ailments, be they something as benign as an itchy red spot or something devastating like malaria or encephalitis. With the Zika virus wreaking havoc, hardly a day goes by that mosquitoes aren’t in the news.
But if you are averse, as I am, to slathering chemical insect repellents on your skin to prevent mosquito bites, you might want to consider planting certain herbs, flowers and other vegetation that have inherent insect repellent properties. An added bonus: The plants themselves make attractive additions to any home garden and all are easy to grow.
Among the largest are lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) and citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus), clumping perennials that can grow up to 6 feet tall. C. nardus is used in the production of citronella oil, used in a variety of mosquito repelling compounds. Locally, ornamental grasses are common in gardens, so why not plant one that does double duty as a mosquito repellent?
Although lemony scents appeal to us humans, they tend to repel many insects. That’s why Lemon Beebalm (Monarda citriodora) is a good bet for the home garden. A perennial that can grow up to 3 feet tall, the plant is native to the United States and features clusters of purple flowers at intervals on tall stems. Similarly named, Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the mint family and is grown for its fragrance, flavor and foliage rather than for its flowers. Lemon-scented geraniums (Pelargonium crispum) feature delicately toothed leaves and pink flowers. They grow into shrubs as tall as 36 inches. Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) is yet another fragrant shrub; it grows up to 6 feet tall and features glossy, narrow leaves and sprays of white or purple flowers.
Not all plants believed to repel mosquitoes rely on a citrus scent to do so. Basil (Ocimum basilicum), peppermint (Mentha piperita) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) all have easily identifiable and equally memorable signature fragrances. All are also useful in cooking and teas, and all are butterfly nectar plants.
The distinctive, grassy odor of wormwood (several varieties of Artemisia) is another fragrance believed to repel insects. The plants — with their finely toothed, silvery-gray leaves — can serve as an interesting accent in a garden bed.
If you happen to be a fan of felines, then you won’t mind having catmint (Nepeta faassenii) and catnip (Nepeta cataria) in your garden. Catmint has a low-growing, mounding habit and produces spikes of lavender-blue flowers. Catnip is less showy and produces white flowers; it emits a fragrance that induces euphoria in cats.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) can be tricky to grow locally because of our humid weather. English lavender mustn’t be planted in soggy, clayish soils if it is to survive. Raising it in containers is a little easier because the moisture level in the soil can be controlled a little better.
If you succeed, you not only have an attractive mounding perennial that produces fragrant purple flowers but a natural mosquito repellent.
Now for the disclaimer: Some researchers disavow the usefulness of planting any of these plants for the purpose of repelling insects and claim that none of them emit repellent oils in concentrations high enough to truly drive away mosquitoes.
But I say plant them anyway. They are easy to grow, look great, add variety of color and texture, and many attract butterflies. So what do you have to lose?
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at rstephanie firstname.lastname@example.org.