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Cymbopogon Species; Ethnopharmacology, Phytochemistry and the Pharmacological Importance

Chemistry Department, University of Fort Hare, 5700 Alice, South Africa
Department of Zoology, Walter Sisulu University, 5099 Mthatha, South Africa
Department of Chemistry, Walter Sisulu University, 5099 Mthatha, South Africa
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Molecules 2015, 20(5), 7438-7453;
Submission received: 25 January 2015 / Revised: 12 March 2015 / Accepted: 25 March 2015 / Published: 23 April 2015
(This article belongs to the Collection Recent Advances in Flavors and Fragrances)


Cymbopogon genus is a member of the family of Gramineae which are herbs known worldwide for their high essential oil content. They are widely distributed across all continents where they are used for various purposes. The commercial and medicinal uses of the various species of Cymbopogon are well documented. Ethnopharmacology evidence shows that they possess a wide array of properties that justifies their use for pest control, in cosmetics and as anti-inflammation agents. These plants may also hold promise as potent anti-tumor and chemopreventive drugs. The chemo-types from this genus have been used as biomarkers for their identification and classification. Pharmacological applications of Cymbopogon citratus are well exploited, though studies show that other species may also useful pharmaceutically. Hence this literature review intends to discuss these species and explore their potential economic importance.

1. Introduction

The presence of secondary metabolites in plants is characterized by their ability to provide defenses against biotic and abiotic stress [1]. The mechanism of defense varies from plant to plant, their environmental conditions and climatic variations. However, the presence of these metabolites in plant are usually in minimum amounts though several molecular techniques are available to either increase or decrease the quantity of a particular metabolite by blocking competitive pathways and enriching metabolites of choice [2]. Terpenes, alkaloids (N-containing compounds) and phenolics constitute the largest groups of secondary metabolites. The shikimic acid pathway is the basis of the biosynthesis of phenolics while the terpenes which are comprised of isoprene units arise from the mevalonate pathway [3]. Aspirin (1) from white willow, quinine (2) from the cinchona plant and artemisinin (3) from Artemisia annum are all plant secondary metabolites. The biological application of these metabolites as therapeutic agents for a broad spectrum of ailments and the microbial infections has been salutary in human history.
The genus Cymbopogon is widely distributed in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia and America. Comprised of 144 species, this genus is famous for its high content of essential oils which have been used for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and perfumery applications [4]. Two main species, C. flexuosus and C. citratus (lemongrass) are commercially cultivated in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Madagascar, and the Comoros Island. However, the leading exporter of these plants is Guatemala, trading about 250,000 kg per year and while the USSR sells about 70,000 kg per year [5].
The commercial value of some Cymbopogon species is further enhanced by their ability to grow in moderate and extremely harsh climatic conditions [6]. In environments where they are not used for cosmetics, drug or perfumery, such as in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, these plants have found a good application as roof thatches and grass brooms [7].

2. Ethnopharmacology of Cymbopogon Species

Traditional applications of Cymbopogon genus in different countries shows high applicability as a common tea, medicinal supplement, insect repellant, insecticide, in flu control, and as anti-inflammatory and analgesic. Table 1 shows the common names of some species, their relevance and how they are applied. C. citratus is ranked as one of the most widely distributed of the genus which is used in every part of the world. Its applications in Nigeria include cures for upset stomach, malaria therapy, insect repellent and as an antioxidant (tea) [8]. C. citratus and C. flexuosus are the prevailing species in Eastern and Western India and have been used locally in cosmetics, insecticides, and for the treatment of digestive disorders and fevers [9,10].
Table 1. Several Cymbopogon species, common name, regions, plant part used and the uses.
Table 1. Several Cymbopogon species, common name, regions, plant part used and the uses.
SpeciesRegionCommon NamePartsMedicinal UsesReferences
C. nardus (L.) RendleIndiaCitronella oilLeavesInsect repellent and as perfumes[11]
C. parkeri StapfPakistanLemon grassAerialAntiseptic and stomachic treatment[12]
C. excavatus HoschtSouth AfricaBread-leavened Turpentine grassSheathsUsed as insecticides[13]
C. olivieri (Boss)PakistanPputarAerialPyretic, vomit, diuretic, rheumatism, and as anti-malaria condiment.[14,15]
C. validus (Stapf)Eastern and Southern AfricaAfrican bluegrassEssential oilsskin toner, anti-ageing in men, fumigant and for rodent control[16]
C. winterianus (Jowitt)BrazilJava grassFleshy leavesTreatment of epilepsy and anxiety[17]
C. marginatus (Steud.)South AfricaLemon-Scented grassRootThey are used as moth repellent[18]
C. citratus StapfIndiaLemon grassAerialFever, digestive disorders[9]
NigeriaLemon grassLeavesDiabetes, inflammation and nerve disorders[8]
ArgentinaLimonariaLeavesAgainst cold and flu, and digestive complaints, stomach upsets and as decoction with other plants for malaria[19]
CubaCana SantaLeaves[20]
Costa RicaGrass teaLeavesTo relieve cough, carminative, expectorant and depurative[21]
ColombiaLimonariaRhizomeIt is chewed and used as toothbrush and for pest control.[22,23]
BrazilCapimsantoLeavesAnxiolytic and anti-hypertensive[24]
Trinidad & Tobago“fever grass”Grass and rhizomesThe teas from it are used to treat cold, flu, fever and diabetes[24]
C. giganteus (Hochst.) Chiov.CameroonTsauri grassdecoctions of leaves and flowersCough and arterial hypertension[25]
C. ambiguous (Hack.) A. Camus.AustraliaNative Lemon GrassLeaves and stemsHeadache remedy, chest infections, muscle cramp and Scabies[26,27]
C. procerus (R.Br.) DominAustraliaScent grassLeaves and stemsLeaves and stem are pounded and used as medicinal body wash used for headache[28]
C. flexuosus (Nees ex Steud.) Wats.IndiaLemon grassLeavesCosmetics, antiseptic and for treatment of fever[10]
C. pendulus (Nees ex Steud.) Wats.IndiaJammu LemongrassLeavesAntiseptic and for perfumery[29]
C. scheonanthus (L.) SprengSaudi ArabiaEthkherLeavesAntidiarrheal, to treat fever, treatment of jaundice and tonic[30]
C. obtectus (S.T. Blake)Central AustraliaSilky-headsMixtureCold and flu, headaches, fever and sore throat[27]
C. proximus (Stapf.)EgyptHalfabarLeavesExpulsion of renal and ureteric calculi[31]
Cymbopogon refractus (R.Brown) A. Camus.AustraliaBarbed wire grassLeavesFeed for animals[32]
C. densiflorus (Steud.) StapfCongoLemongrassLeaves and rhizomeEmployed against asthma, epilepsy, abdominal cramps and pains and also for interpreting dreams by witch doctors.[33,34]
C. jwarancusa (Jones) Schult.EgyptThé LimonThe whole plantCondiment and for medicinal purpose[35]
In the Middle East, C. olivierri and C. parkeri are more predominant, and they are used as antiseptics, anti-malarial condiments, diuretics and also to cure rheumatism [12,14,15]. The high amounts of volatile compounds from these species are responsible for their diverse uses.
Figure 1. Flavonoids and triterpenoids from Cymbopogon species.
Figure 1. Flavonoids and triterpenoids from Cymbopogon species.
Molecules 20 07438 g001

3. Phytochemistry

The enormous information gathered from the ethno-pharmacological applications of Cymbopogons begged the investigation of its chemical constituents. These studies have led to the isolation of alkaloids, volatile and non-volatile terpenoids, flavonoids, carotenoids and tannins from every part of these plants. Figure 1 displays some of the compounds isolated from Cymbopogon species.

3.1. Alkaloids

The rhizome of C. citratus from Nigeria was reported to contain about 0.52% alkaloids from 300 g plant material [36].

3.2. Flavonoids

This class of compounds has potent antioxidant properties. Some of the flavonoids isolated from Cymbopogon species are presented in Figure 1. Isoorientin (4) and tricin (5) were isolated from the dichloromethane extract of C. parkeri [37], evaluation of these two compounds revealed their muscle relaxation activity [38]. Isolation of luteolin (6), luteolin 7-O-glucoside (cynaroside) (7), isoscoparin (8) and 2''-O-rhamnosyl isoorientin (9) from the leaves and rhizomes of C. citratus has been reported. Other flavonoid compounds isolated from the aerial parts of C. citratus are quercetin (10), kaempferol (11) and apigenin (12) [39], isolated elimicin (13), catechol (14), chlorogenic acid (15), caffeic acid (16) and hydroquinone (17) from the aerial parts of the same species. Isolation of 4-phenylpropanoids from Australian species of C. ambiguus has been reported. These compounds are eugenol (4-allyl-2-methoxyphenol) (18); elemicin (5-allyl-1,2,3-trimethoxybenzene) (19); eugenol methylether (4-allyl-1,2-dimethoxybenzene) (20) and trans-iso-elemicin (1,2,3-trimethoxy-5-(1-propenyl) benzene) (21) and all these isolates exhibited good inhibition activity against ADP-induced human platelet serotonin release which is associated with headaches [26].

3.3. Cymbopogon Terpenoids

3.3.1. Non-Volatile Terpenoids

Plants in the Cymbopogon genus contain large amounts of volatile terpenoids though a few species from this genus are reported to contain non-volatile terpenoids as well. Bottini et al. [40] isolated a novel bis-monoterpenoid named cymbodiacetal (22) from C. martinii. The triterpenoids cymbopogone (23) and cymbopogonol (24) (Figure 1) were also reported from the leaves of C. citratus [41].

3.3.2. Volatile Terpenoids of Cymbopogon Species

Different chemotypes of Cymbopogon species contain varying major compounds such as citral, geraniol, citronellol, piperitone and elemin (Table 2). In the literature, the majority of the C. citratus analysed showed a remarkably high percentage of neral (25) and geranial (26). Analysis of C. citratus species from Brazil [42], India [43], West and Eastern Africa [43,44,45,46,47,48,49] and Asia [50] showed the high value of neral and geranial chemotypes. A special distinguishing feature between C. citratus of African origin is the high amount of myrcene observed in them [44,45,46,47,48,49]. High occurance of piperitone (27) characterizes the oils of C. parkeri and C. olivieri from Iran. Jiroveltz et al. [25] reported a significant presence of cis-p-mentha-1(7),8-dien-2-ol (28) and its isomer trans-p-mentha-1(7),8-dien-2-ol (29) in the oils of C. giganteus from Cameroon [25]. Predominant components observed in other Cymbopogon species essential oils from around the world include δ-2-carene (30) in C. proximus from Cameroon [51], linalool (31) from Malaysia’s C. nardus [52], limonene (32) in C. schoenanthus (Tunisia) and C. giganteus (Burkina Faso) [46] and elemicin (33) from the oils of C. pendulus from India [53]. Observation of the oil of C. winterianus from different parts of Brazil showed two major chemotypes based on the amount of geraniol (34) and citronellal (35) [17,54,55,56].
Table 2. Major components observed in some Cymbopogon species.
Table 2. Major components observed in some Cymbopogon species.
CompoundSpeciesCountry/RegionMajor %References
cis-p-mentha-1(7),8-dien-2-ol (C10H16O)C. giganteus(F)Cameroon22.8[25]
Burkina Faso12.0[46]
trans-p-mentha-1(7),8-dien-2-olC. giganteusCameroon26.5[25]
C. giganteusBurkina Faso14.2[46]
C. densiflorusZambia11.1[57]
C. giganteusMadagascar22.4[56]
Limonene (C10H16)C. giganteusCameroon7.4[25]
C.giganteusBurkina Faso42.0[46]
C. proximusBurkina Faso3.9[51]
C. schoenanthusTunisia24.2[58]
Elemicin (C12H16O3)C. pendulusIndia53.7[53]
α-Pinene (C10H16)C. pendulusIndia6.1[53]
Camphene (C10H16)C. pendulusIndia9.1[53]
Geranial (C10H16O)C. flexuosusIndia (Kumauon region)33.1[60]
India (Bilhar)42.4[43]
C. citratusBurkina Faso48.1[46]
Benin republic27.04[62]
Congo Brazaville48.88[45]
Ivory Coast34.0[45]
C. winterianusS.E. Brazil8.05[55]
Neral (C10H16O)C. flexuosusIndia30.0[60]
Burkina Faso34.6[46]
India (Bilhar)29.8[43]
Brazil (North)30.1[42]
C. giganteusBenin republic19.93[62]
C. citratusAngola28.26
Congo Brazzaville36.24[49]
Ivory Coast32.5[45]
Geranyl acetate (C12H20O2)C. flexuosusIndia12.0[60]
Linalool (C10H18O)C. flexuosus India2.6[60]
C. martiniIndia2.0[65]
C. nardus Malaysia11.0[52]
Geraniol (C10H18O)C. winterianusIndia23.9[59]
C. martiniiIndia84.16[65]
C. winterianus Brazil32.82[17]
Brazil (para state)16.2[54]
C. winterianusS.E Brazil40.06[55]
Citronellal (C10H18O)C.winterianusIndia32.7[59]
C. nardusMalaysia29.6[52]
C. winterianusBrazil36.19[17]
C. winterianusBrazil (para state)26.5[54]
C. winterianusS.E. Brazil27.44 [55]
Citronellol (C10H20O)C. winterianus India15.9[59]
C. winterianus Brazil11.34[17]
C. winterianusBrazil (Para state)7.3[54]
C. winterianus S.E. Brazil10.45[55]
Myrcene (C10H16)C. citratus C. citratus C. citratusBurkina Faso11.0[46]
Benin republic27.83[62]
Ivory Coast18.1[45]
Selina-6-en-4-ol (C15H26O)C. citratusBrazil27.8[42]
α-Cadinol (C15H26O)C. citratusBrazil8.2 [42]
Piperitone (C10H16O)C. olivieriIran72.8[14]
C. parkeriIran80.8[12]
C. proximus Burkina Faso59.1[51]
4-Carene (C10H16)C. olivieriIran11.8[12]
Germacrene-D (C15H24)C. parkeriIran5.1[11]
δ-2-Carene (C10H16)C. proximusBurkina Faso22.3[51]
β-Phellandrene (C10H16)C. schoenanthusTunisia13.4[58]

3.4. Tannins

A literature search on the phytochemical screening of C. citratus also reveals the presence of tannins, however, very little effort has been made in the isolation of these compounds despite the appreciable amounts reported through quantitative phytochemical tests. Figueirinha et al. fractionated extracts of the species collected from Portugal and reported about 10 mg dry weight of hydrolysable tannins (prothocyanidins) [66] while C. citratus from Nigeria showed about 0.6% of tannins [36]. C. citratus is the single species of Cymbopogon which is most exploited for its tannin content.

4. Pharmacology

Several bioassays have confirmed the potency of Cymbopogon species for their several uses (Table 3). C. citratus was found to have chemoprotective activity by preventing of diethylnitrosamine (DEN)-initiated hepatocellular lesions in rats [67]. In South Africa, extract from C. citratus was applied for treatment of oral thrush in patients who tested positive to HIV/AIDS and proved effective [68].
Insecticidal activity is one of the biological effects of most plant of the Cymbopogon genus; it is either applied as pest control for stored crops or as mosquito repellent/ insecticide. The essential oils of C. martinii have been studied and found to display high anthelmintic activity against Caenorhabditis elegans at ED50 value of 125.4 µg/mL, C schoenanthus, C. giganteus and C. citratus essential oils from Benin Republic in West Africa all displayed about 100% mortality rate against adult Anopheles gambiae [69]. The essential oil from C. winterianus caused a dose dependent mortality of Culex quinquefasciatus with LC50 of 0.9% [70].
The anticancer properties of Cymbopogon species have also been studied. The essential oils of C. flexuosus was effective in inhibiting the growth and killing of Ehrlich and Sarcoma-180 tumors cells. In this study, it was discovered that at a dose of 200 mg/kg, Ehrlich solid tumor inhibition was about 57.83% compared to the 45.23% inhibition observed with 5-fluorouracil (22 mg/kg) [71]. Inhibition of early phase of hepatocarcinogenesis was also observed in C. citratus [67]. Positive results in several other bioassays such as antiprotozoal, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anti-bacterial, anti-diabetic, anticholinesterase, molluscidal, antifungal and larvicidal activity are also prominent with Cymbopogon species as outlined in Table 3.
Table 3. Pharmacological evidence of some Cymbopogon species.
Table 3. Pharmacological evidence of some Cymbopogon species.
Cymbopogon SpeciesPharmacologyActivityReferences
C. citratusCytotoxicityShows high toxicity against Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells (IC50 = 10.63 μg/mL) and moderately toxic against human fibroblast cell line 138 (W138) cells (IC50 = 39.77 μg/mL).[72]
InsecticidalLC50 of 48.6 μL/L against housefly larvae[43]
Neurobehavioral effectsAbility to be active as sedative, anxiolytic and anticonvulsant agent[73]
AntitrypanosomalModest activity against Trypanasoma brucei IC50 = 1.837 ± 0.13 μg/mL[72]
Anti-diabeticShows activity against poloxamer-407 induced type 2 diabetic (T2D) in Wistar rats[43]
HIV/AIDSAs a highly effective control for oral thrush in HIV/AIDS victims in South Africa[68]
Larvicidal activityIt shows high inhibition and mortality rate against larva of A. aegypti[74]
Chemopreventive activityInhibits the early phase of hepatocarcinogenesis in rats[67]
Anti-inflammationsHexane extract inhibited iNOS (inducible nitric oxide synthase)expression, NO (nitric oxide) production and various LPS (lipopolysaccharide)-induced pathways[75]
C. schoenanthusAntioxidant(DPPH)36%–73.8% activity per 2 μL of oil[58]
Acetylcholinesterase inhibitoryIC50 = 0.26 ± 0.03 mg mL−1[58]
Insecticidal activity2.7 μL/L obtained for LC50 against Callosobruchus maculatus[76]
C. winterianusMoluscidalLC90 = 97.0mg/L and LC50 = 54.0 mg/L[54]
LarvicidalLC 50 = 181.0mg/L[54]
Anti-fungalInhibited the growth of 15 strains of Candida albicans at concentrations of 625 μg/mL and 1250 μg/mL[77]
C. giganteusAntimicrobialHigh activity against gram +ve and gram −ve bacteria[25]
CytotoxicityLow cytotoxicity against CHO cells and the human non cancer fibroblast cell line (W138)[72]
Anti-trypanosomalIC50 = 0.25 ± 0.11 μg/mL against Trypanasoma brucei[72]
AntiplasmodialHigh activity with an IC50 ≤ 20 μg/mL[72]
C. pendulusAntifungalStrong activity against Microsporum audouinii, Trichophyton rubrum and Epidermophyton floccosum at 100% for all the species[78]
C. flexuosusChemopreventivePotent in vivo activity against Ehrlich and Sarcoma-180 tumors.[71]
C. densiflorus StapfAntibacterialGram-negative bacteria. MICs were found to be between 250 and 500 ppm for the Gram-positive and between 500 and 1000 ppm for the Gram-negative bacteria[79]
C. ambiguusInflammatoryInhibition of ADP-induced human platelet serotonin release in the cell.[26]
C. nardusAntibacterialMIC values ranged from 0.244 µg/mL to 0.977 µg/mL when tested against the bacterial isolates[52]
C. nervatusMolluscidal activityIt inhibits Biomphalaria pfeifferi at LD50 of 213.099 ppm dose dependent[80]
C. olivieriAntimicrobial activityExhibited excellent antimicrobial activity against gram ±ve organisms[14]

5. Conclusions

Cymbopogon species have been used as traditional medicine in many countries. Of all the species reviewed, C. citratus and C. flexuosus are the most widely used in traditional and in conventional medicine due to the pharmacological potential of their phytochemicals. The majority of these species contain a voluminous amount of essential oils which have shown several biological activities such as insecticidal, anti-protozoan, anticancer, anti-HIV, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetes effects.


The authors are grateful to Govan Mbeki Research office, UFH, Directorates of Research and Development, WSU and NRF for financial support.

Author Contributions

Opeyemi Avoseh carry out the literature survey and wrote part of first draft of the manuscript. Pamela Rungqu investigated the essential oil composition of Cymbopogon species found in the Eastern Cape and wrote part of the first draft of the manuscript. Opeoluwa Oyedeji, Benedicta Nkeh-Chungag and Adebola Oyedeji are supervisors to the above authors on the chemistry and inflammatory studies of the essential oils. They also contributed editorial to the writing and editing of the final manuscript

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Avoseh, O.; Oyedeji, O.; Rungqu, P.; Nkeh-Chungag, B.; Oyedeji, A. Cymbopogon Species; Ethnopharmacology, Phytochemistry and the Pharmacological Importance. Molecules 2015, 20, 7438-7453.

AMA Style

Avoseh O, Oyedeji O, Rungqu P, Nkeh-Chungag B, Oyedeji A. Cymbopogon Species; Ethnopharmacology, Phytochemistry and the Pharmacological Importance. Molecules. 2015; 20(5):7438-7453.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Avoseh, Opeyemi, Opeoluwa Oyedeji, Pamela Rungqu, Benedicta Nkeh-Chungag, and Adebola Oyedeji. 2015. "Cymbopogon Species; Ethnopharmacology, Phytochemistry and the Pharmacological Importance" Molecules 20, no. 5: 7438-7453.

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