Don’t let mosquitoes ruin your summer! There are plenty of old wives’ tales and myths about which herbs repel mosquitoes. But do any of them actually work? This article will dispel the myths and show you the most effective herbs to keep mosquitoes away.
You don’t have to put up with pesky mosquitoes this summer. There are plenty of ways to keep them at bay, including using natural herbs. So read on and find out how you can use these herbs in your own backyard to keep the mosquitoes away.
Unfortunately, not every herb touted as a mosquito repellent works. To make sure you get the best possible results in your yard, we’ve pulled together expert research and talked to experienced herb gardeners.
How do Herbs Keep Mosquitoes Away?
Herbs and other fragrant garden plants keep mosquitoes away in several ways.
Using Herbs to Mask Your Scent
The most common way herbs keep mosquitoes away is to mask scents. For these plants, it’s incorrect to say they repel mosquitoes. That’s not how these natural mosquito repellants keep flying pests away from you. Instead, they create a scent strong enough to hide you from mosquitoes.
How does that work? Some plants have a fragrance in their natural oils that is strong enough to mask the scent of the carbon dioxide and lactic acid that you exhale. Those odors are what attract a mosquito in the first place. So by masking your scent, it is harder for mosquitoes to find you.
Herbs that have a high fragrance and are unattractive to insects include lavender, thyme, scented geraniums and basil.
How to Get the Most Benefit from Herbs that Mask Your Scent
Strategically planting these herbs in your garden or pots on your patio will help. But it takes a strong dose of the fragrance from the plant oils to have a significant effect. Basil is one of the few plants with a strong enough odor to repel mosquitoes in plant form.
If you want to reap the benefits of the natural mosquito repellents found in herbs, you will need to take more aggressive action like:
- Picking and crushing the leaves will release enough of the oils and fragrance for many herbs. Put a bowl of freshly crushed leaves next to your seats to help keep mosquitoes at bay.
- Rubbing the oil on your skin. If you’re looking for a natural mosquito repellent while hiking or working in the yard, many herbalists successfully rub a few fresh leaves over your exposed skin to release the oils.
- Use Herb-Based Essential Oils. You can use essential oils to create insect-repelling sprays for your yard or spray directly on your skin. The effectiveness of essential oils can vary with the concentration.
- Burning herbs, either dried or fresh. Want to know how to keep mosquitoes away while camping the natural way? Bring a bunch of herbs, and burn them in your campfire. Smudge sticks are a common way to prepare herbs for burning around your patio area.
- Spraying Your Yard with Essential Oils. Instead of using a chemical-based spray that has the potential of killing beneficial insects, plants, and wildlife, make a safe, natural one. Grab a spray bottle and add about 20 drops of essential oils (lavender, mint, rosemary, lemongrass, lemon thyme, basil or lemon balm). Add 2 fl oz of boiled water and a drop of vodka, and you have an easy, natural mosquito repellent!
It’s important to note that in all these methods, the benefit of the oils has a reasonably short life, so you should repeat the process every 20-30 minutes. You have not killed the mosquitoes; you are only masking your body odors. So once the oil dissipates, it stops being effective.
Plants that Repel Mosquitoes
There are a handful of plants that genuinely repel mosquitoes. Their fragrance is so bitter that most insects prefer to go elsewhere. There aren’t any natural herbs in this group, but it’s worth knowing that planting Santolina, a small fragrant shrub, or Lemongrass in your garden provides a natural repellent.
Some Plants are Toxic to Mosquitoes
Plants, like dried pyrethrum flowers, are often used in commercial insect repellents. Creating these sprays yourself would be difficult and is generally something the home gardener avoids.
Herbs to Keep Mosquitoes Away
Once you start planting herbs and learning more about them, you’ll love their versatility, beauty and fresh fragrance.
Below are the best herbs to keep mosquitoes away:
Many of the plants that are great insect repellants are in the mint family. At the top of the list is peppermint.
Gardeners love Peppermint (Mentha × piperita) because it is a prolific and very hardy plant (zones 3-7). So though loved because it is easy to grow, it can be somewhat invasive, taking over your garden if not contained.
However, for mosquito repellency, that abundant crop is good news. According to the Malaria Journal¹, peppermint in a 20% oil solution had over 50% repellency against mosquitoes.
Luckily we humans love the smell of peppermint. Rub the mint essential oils on your skin, use the oil in a spray or include some in a smudge stick is a pleasant way to keep those pesky bugs away.
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus aka Rosmarinus officinalis) is a fantastic option from the mint family for the southern gardener where it is a fragrant hardy shrub (zones 8-11). Many northern gardeners keep their precious rosemary by overwintering indoors.
Rosemary effectively keeps mosquitoes, carrot flies, and cabbage moths away with its trademark woody fragrance. Research shows that 20% oil is up to 100% effective¹ in repelling mosquitoes.
Don’t forget to take regular cuttings as a flavoring for potatoes, lamb, and more.
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is one of the most potent herbal insect repellents. Its oil, citronella, is an ingredient in many natural mosquito repellents that you can buy. It demonstrated up to a 70% effectiveness¹ in mosquito repellency.
Lemongrass is popular in the kitchen for soups and seafood. The 3-foot tall grass is also an attractive backdrop in gardens. While a perennial in warm locations, it is usually grown as an annual.
Garden Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) seasons a wide variety of dishes, from pasta to chicken to soups. This fragrant member of the mint family also effectively repels mosquitoes because of its strong fragrance.
However, two species of thyme have a more potent fragrance and are preferred for keeping mosquitoes away:
Lemon thyme (Thymus X citriodorus) is an attractive herb with a light and citrusy smell. Since they contain high concentrations of citronella oil, they are effective natural mosquito repellents.
The Iowas State University study revealed that crushed lemon thyme leaves were 62% as effective as DEET to repel mosquitoes. That’s a pretty impressive number! When you rub lemon thyme leaves onto your skin to extract the oil, you can expect excellent protection from biting insects.
Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
Creeping thyme is a low-growing ground cover (zones 4-9). Although rarely used for cooking, it is a beautiful garden plant that attracts butterflies with vivid purple blooms. Interestingly, the fragrance that attracts one insect will repel another!
Not only does it repel mosquitoes, but it’s also deer and rabbits resistant. Malaria Journal reported up to 100% repellency with a 20% oil solution for creeping thyme.
One of the most popular herbal mosquito repellents is lavender (Lavandula sp). It is beautiful to look at, but it also has a gentle and soothing scent, makes a delicious tea ingredient, and offers countless medicinal properties.
The lavender plant comes in many varieties, and you’ll need to find one that grows well in your area’s climate. Once planted, your lavender will help repel mosquitoes and other annoying insects, such as biting flies. Lavender oil is almost 80% effective¹ in repelling mosquitoes.
Lavender grows well in the sun. It’s also a good candidate for a small planter in a sunny place indoors.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is the delicious flavor in pesto, pasta dishes, and salads. There are many varieties, and it’s a popular choice for herb gardeners as you can eat it, use it as an essential oil, and keep it in your yard to repel mosquitoes.
The basil we commonly know in our homes is closely related to tropical species Ocimum kilimandscharicum and Ocimum suave, which have been extensively studied for their effectiveness in repelling mosquitoes in the tropics. They are nearly as good as DEET.
Although not quite as strong, our common basil will naturally repel mosquitoes. The Malaria Journal reported up to 67% effectiveness¹ with a 20% basil essential oil. It’s also one of the few plants with a strong enough fragrance to mask your odors as a potted plant. So yes, set that big pot of basil next to your grilling area or plant basil near your favorite chair!
If you’ve ever tried lemon balm tea, you’ll understand how lemon balm can improve your life.
Lemon balm offers many benefits, including reducing digestive problems, stress levels and soothing skin complaints. You can use it as a garnish or flavor enhancer in soups, salads, and fish dishes and dry some out to make a fantastic herbal tea.
Mosquitoes hate the smell of lemon balm and will stay away from it.
The only downside to lemon balm is that it is an invasive species, so growing it in a planter is advisable.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) has a licorice-like flavor, perfect for salads and stews. It’s relatively easy to grow in your herb garden.
The oil from fennel leaves has shown over an 80% mosquito repellency rate¹ for up to an hour, according to a study published by the National Library of Medicine.
Another member of the mint family, Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is an interesting choice for a mosquito repelling plant. Catnip is incredibly easy to grow. It is widely known as a highly effective mosquito repellent. It contains a bug-repelling compound: nepetalactone, which mosquitoes hate, but cats love.
If you opt for catnip, consider growing it in a planter as it grows rapidly and can soon become invasive if planted in a garden bed. Also, remember that catnip is a feline attractant, so be prepared for a few visitors.
If you have a small backyard and are looking for a great herb to grow as a mosquito and insect repellent, you should strongly consider lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora). It has a light lemony flavor perfect for salad dressings, poultry and soup.
Lemon verbena can be grown in pots around your garden. When its leaves are rubbed, it emits a beautiful lemon fragrance, which you would enjoy smelling if you rub it onto your skin as a mosquito repellent.
Other Garden Plants as Mosquito Repellents
You probably already know that citronella naturally repels mosquitoes. It’s commonly sold in candles and oils and marketed as an insect repellent.
Instead of buying citronella products, you can easily grow the citronella plant in your garden. Be aware that it is vulnerable to frost, and you may need to move it indoors during the winter).
Citronella releases a powerful scent that masks the smell of the carbon dioxide you exhale. Since mosquitoes can’t smell the CO2, they can’t find you.
Lemon eucalyptus (Corymbia citriodora) is one of the few natural oils recommended by the CDC to repel mosquitoes and ticks. This natural repellent is considered just as effective as chemical repellants. That is why you will find lemon eucalyptus oil in many commercial repellents. It definitely smells a whole lot better!
Most gardeners don’t grow lemon eucalyptus because it can grow to an immense size, over 60 feet tall. But if you want to be a little adventurous, it can make a lovely potted herb that you can grow in your kitchen year-round.
It has sword-shaped leaves with a gentle lemon and eucalyptus scent and works well as a mosquito repellent if you rub it onto your skin before exposure. Bear in mind that lemon eucalyptus can be toxic if consumed, so you should keep your plant away from young kids and curious pets.
Marigolds are beautiful flowers and can be planted anywhere you have a mosquito problem. They will effectively repel them with their gentle scent.
An added benefit of growing marigolds is their ability to repel other unwanted insects, such as aphids, whiteflies and thrips. They’ve also are effective against squash bugs and Mexican bean beetles.
The Citrosa plant is commonly advertised as a miracle plant that repels mosquitoes. Unfortunately, research by Iowa State University found that this plant by itself (which is how it is advertised) was ineffective. It indeed contains citronella oil, which is a commonly used repellent. But the concentration of citronella oil is very low.
Crushed leaves of this plant did provide some protection at 30 to 40 percent of the repellency of DEET. However, as you’ve seen in the review of other plants, there are far better choices.
Citronella Grass (Cymbopogon nardus or Cymbopogon winterianus) is a tall, 5-6 foot, clumpy grass. It’s perennial in warmer places (zones 10-12) and can be grown as an annual in other areas. It’s occasionally called lemongrass – but know that true lemongrass is a different species (see listing above).
This grass is highly effective at repelling mosquitoes and is often the source of commercially available citronella. The grass is often woven into wreaths in the tropics to help repel mosquitoes.
Herbs that Don’t Work Repelling Mosquitoes
There are many old wives’ tales and misinformed articles about plants and herbs to keep away these pesky critters. Here are a few that don’t stand up to their reputation.
Many stories exist about using sage as a bug repellent. Unfortunately, it isn’t a good choice, demonstrating less than a 20% repellency rate¹, as reported by the Malaria Journal. Even knowing that, many people like to use sage in combination with more effective herbs in smudge sticks because of its pungent smell.
Lantana (Lantana camera) fell under the 50% effectiveness¹ mark as a natural insecticide. If you love the colorful and heady flowers, then, by all means, take advantage of this plant. But don’t have high expectations for its performance as an insect repellent.
Best Defense is to Keep Mosquito Larvae from Hatching in the First Place
With all these fantastic herbs to choose from, keep in mind that the best way to avoid a mosquito problem is the natural alternative of eliminating the environment they like. That means:
- eliminating any standing water, which is a prime breeding ground for mosquito larvae.
- keep thick bushes, where mosquitoes love to hide, away from your seating areas.
- encourage a breeze through your outdoor space by arranging your plantings or by using fans. Mosquitoes have fragile wings that don’t fare well in a breeze, and the air movement also helps move your carbon dioxide exhales away.
Mosquitoes are pesky insects that can ruin a summer evening barbecue or outdoor party. But, with the help of these herbs, you can deter mosquitoes and other flying insects from visiting your party.
These plants and herbs have been proven to be mosquito repelling. So, start by planting one or more of these herbs in your garden. Or grab the essential oils from these herbs to keep mosquitoes away and enjoy an evening free of nasty bug bites.
- National Library of Medicine: Plant-based insect repellents: a review of their efficacy, development and testing
- Gardening Australia: Pest Management Plants
- Iowa State University: Mosquito Repellent Plants
- Malaria Journal: Effectiveness of plant-based repellents against different Anopheles species: a systematic review
- National Library of Medicine: Comparison of Repellency Effect of Mosquito Repellents for DEET, Citronella, and Fennel Oil