The flavor of French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa) is highly prized by world-famous chefs and weekend culinary gurus alike. True tarragon can be tricky to grow, but gardeners do have a very suitable alternative, Mexican mint marigold. Though not quite as complex as true French tarragon, Mexican mint marigold does possess the same strong, sharp and sweet anise flavor associated with tarragon and shared, to some extent, by other plants such as anise and fennel. It is grown as a perennial in Zones 8 and warmer and grown as an annual in colder climates.
As with most plants, Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) has several common names including sweet mace and Texas tarragon. It should not be confused with the mint family as the common name would imply, but it is in fact a type of marigold though it hardly resembles the common garden flower. The glossy green leaves are long, narrow and pointed, and the golden-yellow, three- to four-petaled flowers are rather small, barely the size of a dime. Mexican mint marigold is not an unattractive plant by any means but is primarily grown for its flavor and aroma and not as an ornamental.
For common use, only one or two plants will be necessary. Plants started from seed will have slightly longer leaves and a more sprawling habit than the stockier upright plants purchased from a nursery. Plants from seed also seem to be slightly stronger and sweeter in flavor.
Dig a large hole for the new plant. Remove the plant from its container and gently spread the roots.
If you lack the time and inclination to start plants from seed, simply transplant from your local greenhouse or favorite herb nursery. When purchasing plants, look for bushy, healthy specimens in 2.5-inch or larger pots. Check under the leaves to make sure there are no pests hiding and gently pinch the leaves. Doing so should release that wonderful aroma of tarragon and ensure that you have the real deal.
Plant Mexican mint marigold in a fairly sunny spot. If you have room in an existing garden that currently grows sun-loving plants, your new herb will be quite happy there. The mature plant will grow to about 2 feet tall and between 12 and 18 inches wide, so plan accordingly. The best measure you can take to ensure success with growing this herb is to provide a loose, well-drained soil. Dig your planting area deep and break up the soil as much as possible. Add some compost and extra nutrients to the planting area if you feel the soil may be weak in this area. A fairly neutral pH between 6 and 7.5 is ideal. Set your new plant in the soil just slightly deeper than it had been growing in the pot. Water it in well and you’re done.
Mexican mint marigold is fairly drought tolerant and will be fine with moderate watering throughout the growing season. During especially dry parts of the year, keep an eye on it and give it a nice slow soaking at the first sign of wilt. If a particularly hard winter is predicted, it may be wise to provide a good straw mulch over your plant. Be patient the following season as Mexican mint marigold is very slow to break dormancy in the spring.
Those with a limited garden area (or those in zones colder than USDA Zone 8) may choose to grow Mexican mint marigold in a container. Provide a good-sized pot for your plant – a 12-inch or larger clay pot or a gallon-sized plastic pot will work well. Again, a good and loose growing medium is required, so don’t skimp on your potting mix for this herb. At the end of the season, you can try moving the potted plant to the garage to overwinter and gradually reintroduce it to the outdoors in the spring.
Simple and basic herb harvesting techniques apply to Mexican mint marigold. A small pair of scissors and a basket or some other container are all that is required. Harvesting can begin anytime after the plants are established in the garden. You may harvest the leaves one at a time if only a few are needed or take 3- to 4-inch sections from the tips of branches if larger amounts are required. Frequent topping of the plant will encourage branching and a bushier and healthier plant, but avoid taking more than half the plant at any one time.
It is recommended that you harvest this and all culinary herbs in the morning before the direct rays of the sun reach the plant. Direct sunlight extracts the oils from the herb, and although herbs harvested in midday will smell wonderful, they will lack much of their flavor in the kitchen.
Once you have harvested your herbs, return to the kitchen and gently submerge the fresh leaves in a bowl of room temperature tap water. Swishing the herbs back and forth in the water will remove any soil, dust, or unwanted pest from the leaves. A nice run through a salad spinner will remove most of the soil moisture from herbs, allowing them to be used immediately or stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator. If you do not have a salad spinner, gently blot the herbs between paper towels. Harvested and stored properly, fresh herbs can be held in the refrigerator for over a week with little loss of flavor or quality. If harvesting Mexican mint marigold during its blooming period, handle the flowers in the same way as the leaves. After you spin dry the plant tops, remove the flowers and store them in plastic containers lined with paper towels. The flowers are edible, possessing the same flavor as the plant and make a wonderful addition to meals either as part of a salad or a colorful garnish for meats and vegetables.
I usually insist that herbs be used fresh but Mexican mint marigold is one of those herbs that will actually maintain much of its flavor and culinary appeal when properly dried.
The dried leaves are used to make a wonderful tea that is popular in Latin America. Additionally, the dried leaves and flowers are perfect additions to potpourri, herbal wreaths and dried flower arrangements.
Cut stem sections to between 6 and 12 inches long. Arrange in small bundles of about four stems each and secure the cut end of the stems with a rubber band wrapped tightly around the stems. Use a paper clip bent away from itself to form a “S” hook with one end attached to the rubber band on your bundle and the other end to hang from a hook or a screen mesh attached to the ceiling. Hang your bundles upside down in this manner either in the garage, a work shed or even in the attic. Use a small fan to provide some air circulation around your bundles. Do not dry the bundles in direct sunlight or areas with high humidity. Utility rooms with washers and dryers, kitchens (particularly in front of the window) and bathrooms are the worst places to dry herb bundles.
After a few weeks, check your bundles. The leaves should be quite brittle and fragile. If they are flexible at all, they are not completely dry. Leave them for another week or so. Once dried, transfer your bundles to a newspaper-covered table and begin stripping the leaves from the stems, and then transfer the dried material to airtight containers for storage. Make sure you label the containers so you know what they are. Dried stems that are going to be used in arrangements or potpourri may be left hanging until needed.
When it comes to using Mexican mint marigold in the kitchen, your only limitation will be your own imagination. Because of its strong, unique and sweet flavor, it can complement practically any food. The fresh leaves can be added to salads or chopped and sprinkled over fresh fruit, steamed vegetables, any type of meat, or baked in bread recipes. A little can be used to add flavor to pasta and pizza sauce or baked in your favorite lasagna dish. It makes tasty herb butter, wonderful herb vinegar, and can be mixed with any combination of other ingredients to make superb sauces and condiments.
If using as a substitute for French tarragon, use the same amount of Mexican mint marigold as called for in the recipe. Remember, the general rule is, if a recipe calls for a tablespoon of dried herb, use three times that amount of the fresh herb. When adding the herb to soups or sauces that are cooked or simmered, add this herb at the very end of the cooking process to avoid flavor loss. With a little experimentation and creativity, you may find that the easy-to-grow and wonderfully tasty Mexican mint marigold is one of your all-time favorite culinary herbs.
A version of this article originally appeared in print in Oklahoma Gardener Volume II Issue V. Top photo by M. Martin Vicente all other photos by Tom Bergey.