insect repellent herbs

Fragrant herbs for repelling insects

When we’re talking insect repellent herbs, lemony herbs are particularly useful in repelling mosquitoes, flies or garden pests like whiteflies and aphids. Lemon-scented herbs like lemon verbena, lemon balm, citronella geranium, lemon grass and indigenous lemon bush (Lippia javanica) all contain strong lemonscented volatile oils (citral or citronellal) that are unpalatable to pests, actively repelling them.

Other strong insect repellent herbs with distinctive aromatic fragrances are lavender, catnip, basil and peppermint. Using herb sprays is a natural way to control the pests, which have been particularly bad this summer. Working with nature and using natural controls is a much healthier option than chemical controls and repellents. For herbs to be effective, however, the fragrance has to be released by crushing or rubbing the leaves. For instance, mosquitoes, flies and midges are attracted to body odour, and repellents work by masking the body’s scent. Rubbing the leaves onto the skin, especially around ankles, arms and other areas most exposed and vulnerable, releases the fragrance and leaves the oil on the skin. In the same way, a strong-smelling herb spray can divert or repel pests away from the target vegetables.

Another simple repelling strategy is to add twigs of sage or rosemary to the braai fire. It not only smells good but also keeps the insects away – if you’re near the smoke. The late Margaret Roberts used bunches of lemon verbena as fly and mozzie swatters, and she also rubbed citronella geranium leaves on table-tops, blankets and pillows as well as pushing a sprig or two (crushed) underneath pillows at night.

Insect repellent sprays using any of these strongly scented herbs are handy and effective. The best method is to make a tincture, which is more concentrated than an infusion. A tincture is a herbal preparation that is made by steeping the leaves and flowers of a herb in alcohol or vinegar, which extracts the medicinal constituents. Because alcohol and vinegar act as preservatives, this gives tinctures a longer shelf life than infusions, which are best drunk the same day. Adding a drop or two of essential oils makes the fragrance even more powerful.

How to make herb balm mozzie-repellent spray

Pick a large cupful of herb leaves. Any lemon-scented herb will do, and you can also add sprigs of peppermint, catnip and lavender.
Put it in a glass jar and pour in apple cider vinegar or witch hazel (get it from the pharmacy) to just cover the herbs.
Seal the jar and put it in a cool, dark cupboard.
Shake the jar daily for two weeks.
Strain into another jar or bottle and add 2 – 3 drops of essential oil (basil, lemon grass, citronella).
Seal the bottle and keep in a dark cupboard. It will last for up to six months.

To make the spray, fill a spritzer bottle with 50:50 tincture and water. If you are worried about skin sensitivity, spray a small amount on a patch of skin to see if there is any reaction. To use the spray, shake the spray before using and spray it on the skin or around the area. It is effective for about 2 hours before needing to be reapplied. Store the diluted spray in the refrigerator for up to a week.

How to make a bug repellent balm

Start by making a herb-infused oil. Fill a jar with dried herbs and cover with a carrier oil, like extra virgin olive oil, almond oil or coconut oil.
Seal the jar and let it stand in a dark cupboard for two weeks, shaking the jar whenever you remember.
After two weeks, strain out the herbs.
Put one cup of herb-infused oil and 30g of beeswax in a double boiler and dissolve the beeswax completely. Add 30g shea butter (optional) and dissolve.
Add drops of essential oils (as mentioned above) to the mixture. The amount used depends on the strength of fragrance that you require.
Carefully pour the mixture into jars and let it set.
Apply to the skin, making sure to do a skin test first in case of an allergic reaction.

Lemon bush (Lippia javanica) is an indigenous woody shrub with very strongly scented lemon leaves and sprays of creamy-white flowers in summer. The hairy, light green leaves are said to be some of the most aromatic of our indigenous shrubs. Its volatile oil is being used in the local production of mosquito-repelling candles. It grows best in full sun, in all kinds of soil and is often used as a pioneer plant because it grows so easily and quickly.

Good to know: Put fresh sprigs in cupboards to keep clothes and linen fresh.

Citronella geranium (Pelargonium) is a shrubby perennial that grows 80cm high and wide. It is evergreen, frost tolerant and likes full sun, as well as a little afternoon shade. Enrich the soil with compost for extra fertility and good drainage. If the stems grow lanky and fall over, the plant needs more sun. Prune it to get it back into shape. The serrated green leaves and small, pink blooms in summer add texture to a garden border and are attractive in flower arrangements.

Good to know: Bruise the leaves to release the fragrance. Adding leaves to the bathwater will also soothe the skin.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a hardy perennial that likes full sun and rich, moist soil. It can grow about 50cm high. To keep it compact and bushy, pinch out the growing tips. It is a member of the mint family but is not invasive. The serrated dark green leaves have an antiseptic mintlike smell, and it has small white flowers.

Good to know: Because cats tend to roll on it, plant it out of reach in a hanging basket or in a container and put an old birdcage over it or make your own cage.

Top Tip from Phyto-Force: Marigolds are great insect repelling plants for all kinds of bugs. Plant them between your veg to keep pests such as aphids (and even rabbits!) away. They also deter mosquitoes so are useful to more than just your veggies! The leaves can be used topically to reduce diaper rash, help reduce unsightly varicose veins, treat swollen bug bites, burns, bruises and cuts, and reduce the symptoms of dermatitis and eczema.

For more information visit: www.healthyliving-herbs.co.za

The Gardener