The mosquito war
Rob Sproule suggests some creative ways to keep summer’s least-loved visitors at bay.
Our late-night summer sun is one of the sweetest things about living in Alberta. Sitting on a warm patio around 9 p.m. and letting the day drain away like cold beer almost (almost) makes our winters worth it. With long days, however, come the skeeters.
With our increasing skepticism about rubbing DEET on our skin, we’re looking to alternative ways to keep the biters at bay. From the days of the voyageurs who rubbed skunk urine on their skin and hung spruce boughs around their necks, Canadians have been finding creative ways to keep mosquitoes at bay.
By far, citronella is the most popular natural solution available today. With all the buzz about citronella-based plants and products lately, I thought I would flesh it out for you.
What is citronella?
Citronella oil, the active ingredient in countless consumer products from soap to candles to dog collars, is a registered and proven insect repellent (according to the USDA). It’s derived from Cymbopogon (lemongrass), and is recognized as one of the safest repellents for mosquitoes and other creepy nasties.
Mosquitoes avoid the lemony smell (which, luckily, is more appealing than skunk urine to us). Burning a citronella candle works well to keep them away as long as you’re in a partly enclosed area, like a deck or patio with at least one wall. In an open yard the wind will simply carry the scent away.
Citronella geranium, or citrosa, was developed with the idea of capturing citronella in a plant to keep mosquitoes away. It has become increasingly popular thanks to word of mouth, but it’s only effective if you use it the right way.
Citronella’s lemony scent is what keeps the skeeters away. If you put it in a planter, make sure it’s only a few feet from where you like to sit and in a partly sheltered area. The most effective way to use citronella is to actually break the leaves up and wipe them on your skin. Unfortunately, while you’ll smell lemony fresh, it has to be applied every hour and your geranium will be naked very quickly.
The most practical way to use citronella is to blend it into the mixed container gardens that you have around you on the patio in the evenings. This will effectively create a lemon-scented perimeter while you enjoy your wine. Ideally, blend in some other mosquito-deterring plants to reinforce your defence.
People tend to think citronella geranium is the only plant that naturally repels mosquitoes. However, several other plants can also do the trick. It’s true that other plants lack the ‘street cred’ or the marketing that citronella has, but they are effective nonetheless.
Catnip contains a naturally occurring insect repellent (nepetalactone), which is effective at keeping most creepy-crawly and flying pests out of the vicinity. Spreading fresh catnip leaves in an ant-infested area is a useful — though temporary — way of telling them that they aren’t welcome.
Marigold ‘ Lemon Gem’
These are classic marigolds that combine the pest-controlling benefits of French marigolds with a statuesque habit and leaves punctuated by scores of single, yellow sundrop flowers, which are edible. It will grow easily in full sun into a bushy filler plant, contributing finely cut leaves to the overall architecture. The marigold is a natural mosquito deterrent, and you’ll notice a lemony fragrance, too.
This little plant, also called ‘Floss Flower,’ provides colour all summer and has better heat tolerance than other mosquito-repellent options. It’s not edible, but deters mosquitoes by emitting the chemical coumarin, which they hate. Ageratum is also an excellent way to add a splash of colour to your yard.