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Do lemon plants repel mosquitoes?

Lemon-scented geranium is also known as the citronella or mosquito plant.
Lemon-scented geranium is also known as the citronella or mosquito plant. The Wichita Eagle

The Herb of the Year for 2016 is peppers – and there will be presentations on peppers at Herb Day this weekend at the Extension Center – but because of the fear of mosquitoes and the Zika virus, lemon herbs may be the real headliners this year.

“All that lemon stuff is popular. They’re even buying the lemon eucalyptus,” Ron Marcum of Dutch’s Greenhouse said this week of his customers. They blew through the first crop of lemongrass early in the season.

Marcum suspects that the Zika virus is behind the lemon fever, though the virus never has been transmitted in Kansas. Mosquitoes are always the enemy anyway; they do transmit West Nile virus here.

But do the lemon plants really make a difference when it comes to repelling mosquitoes?

“Based on the data, these things really don’t work,” said Raymond Cloyd, an entomologist at K-State.

Deet, when its label directions are followed, is still your best bet for avoiding bites, he said.

But it’s not nearly such a pretty thing as a plant, which may make people feel better even if it’s not super-effective, Cloyd said. “It’s more psychological.”

People buy lemon herbs year in and year out anyway, because of their bright fragrance, easy growing and citrusy flavoring.

“I grow all of them,” said Lisa LaRue of the Herb Society of South Central Kansas. The club sponsors Herb Day, which is 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, along with the Sedgwick County Master Gardeners. “My favorite would be lemon verbena. Even though it’s not a perennial here.” You can use it both fresh and dried.”

At Herb Day, you’ll be able to taste the herbs in action. The society will be serving an herb-infused lunch, including iced lemon balm tea and hot black tea flavored with lemon verbena, said Barbara Richardson of the society. She has experience with the citronella plant – which is a lemon scented geranium – and mosquitoes.

“If you sit amongst it, it’ll work,” she said. And if you brush it on your skin, it’ll help a little bit, but it doesn’t last that long.”

You can shop for lemon and other herbs at Herb Day, at the farmers market and at garden centers. Johnson’s Garden Centers has pots of lemongrass combined with the citronella lemon-scented geranium.

Here is a lemon-herb sampler:

▪ Lemon verbena. The lemoniest herb, it can be used fresh or dried.

▪ Lemon balm. “Lemon balm reseeds heavily; it can take the whole yard over,” Richardson says. “I tell people, when you see little flowers, give it a haircut. You can cut it back down to stubs, and it’ll come back.” It can be used in a variety of foods including making tea – steep a handful in boiling water – and in baked goods.

▪ Lemon thyme. “I usually use lemon thyme vs. regular thyme because I think the flavor’s a little brighter,” LaRue says. “It’s not quite so dusty.”

▪ Lemon eucalyptus. This grows to be a tree in tropical areas; it will grow larger than the other herbs here over a summer, but it will be no tree. Lemon eucalyptus oil can be found in natural alternatives to Deet, with some effectiveness.

▪ Lemongrass. It’s used in Asian cooking.

▪ Lemon mint, Thai lemon basil and lemon catnip are some others that may be harder to find.

Getting back to the Herb of the Year, there is a product, Picaridin, a synthetic derivative of pepper plants, that is an alternative to Deet. It’s not entirely natural. You can also put out fans that deter mosquitoes – and swirl around all those fabulous lemon and other herbal fragrances.

Annie Calovich: 316-268-6596, @anniecalovich

Herb Day

When: 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 7

Where: Extension Education Center, 7001 W. 21st St.

How much: Free

More information: sedgwick.ksu.edu

Herb Day seminars

In the Sunflower Room:

8:30 a.m.: peppers, by extension agent Rebecca McMahon

9:30 a.m.: gardening for monarchs, by Miami County master gardener Lenora Larson

11 a.m.: butterflies in your vegetable garden, by Larson

In the Demonstration Garden:

8 a.m.: composting demonstration

9 a.m.: container gardening for bees and butterflies

10 a.m.: cooking with peppers

11 a.m.: the licorice herbs: anise hyssop, French tarragon, fennel

Mosquito prevention

▪ Drain areas that collect stagnant water, where mosquitoes breed.

▪ Dress in protective clothing, including long sleeves and pants, when possible.

▪ Use Deet or picaridin insect repellant on skin when outdoors.

Source: Kansas Department of Health and Environment