This very ancient herb goes by a variety of common, but somewhat confusing names. "Mexican mint marigold" is the most common, but you’ll also find it listed as Texas tarragon, Mexican’ tarragon, cloud plant, coronilla, winter tarragon, sweet mace, sweet marigold and Spanish tarragon. It isn’t, however, related to French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’) at all.
Don’t confuse French tarragon, which is used for cooking, with false or Russian tarragon, A. dracunculoides, because it is somewhat invasive, grows well in hotter climates, and is grown from seed.
The Latin name, Tagetes lucida, refers to its other Tagetes relatives, the marigolds. Mint marigold is a perennial, native to Central and South America and has been used as a seasoning herb, tea plant and medicinal in native cultures for more than a thousand years.
The flavor is anise-like, a bit sweeter than ‘French’ tarragon, but used in some of the same ways as that herb. Dried leaves are used in soups, sauces and main dishes. Unlike French tarragon, it doesn’t retain its best flavor when dried, ‘mint’ marigold dries quite well. However, its best flavor is from the fresh leaves, chopped and used in dishes such as chicken salad, tossed green salads and even fresh pesto sauces over tacos.
Medicinal uses include treatment for upset stomach, for stimulating the appetite, as a diuretic and stimulating beverage. There are reports from various parts of Mexico and the southern United States of message-carrying long-distance runners using especially strong mint marigold tea to give them strength and stamina; the robust tea acting similar to the caffeine in strong coffee. Traditionally, the leaves were an important flavoring for chocolatl, the foamy, stimulating cocoa drink of the ancient Aztecs.
Mexican mint marigold does well in regions where French tarragon struggles. For example, French tarragon doesn’t thrive in the hotter southern states. Even in the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks, ‘French’ tarragon suffers with the heat, but Mexican mint marigold thrives in hot climates.
You can grow Mexican mint marigold in any average garden soil. Depending on your climate, you may grow it as a perennial or an annual. While Mexican mint marigold is said to be hardy in Zones 8 to 11, from my own experience it will grow easily in Zones 6 and 7, if mulched well in the fall. The plant expands into a small clump in the second year and can withstand temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit, provided it has 6 to 12 inches of straw mulch piled on the plant after the first frost in the fall.
Sow the Mexican mint marigold seed in early spring indoors and transplant into the garden after danger of frost, or direct-sow in the garden; you can also grow it in a patio container. Seed germination takes 5 to 15 days. The plant requires all-day sunshine and will grow anywhere tomatoes, peppers or basil will grow. If grown as an annual, you will likely not see it flower since it requires a long growing season. (In my own garden, where we sometimes don’t have a killing frost before the first of November, I have some early flowering). The plant reaches 15 to 20 inches in height and about as broad. It is somewhat drought tolerant, but you will get better growth and fuller plants by watering occasionally.
Begin harvesting leaves when the plant has reached about 12 inches in height, clipping sprigs or individual leaves for tea or seasoning. If the plant does flower, the small, bright yellow flowers are good additions to salads, as a garnish and for weavers; the flowers can produce a nice yellow dye.
Mexican mint marigold is an attractive plant in the landscape, as well. With shiny, dark green leaves, it works well with roses and perennials in border areas and requires little maintenance. The plant has no persistent insect pests (an occasional grasshopper will taste a leaf) and when in flower, butterflies visit. Otherwise it’s trouble-free.
Try your favorite brownie recipe and add 3 tablespoons of freshly chopped Mexican mint marigold leaves. You may be surprised how well the herb blends with chocolate (or maybe not, since the ancient Aztecs regularly used it with their chocolatl drink).
Make a pleasant-tasting cup of tea by using 1 teaspoon of freshly chopped Mexican mint marigold leaves and pour 1 cup of boiling water over them in a cup. Cover the cup with a saucer to hold in the steam while the hot water extracts the flavor. Sweeten, or not, and enjoy the flavor of this ancient herb.
Try this Fresh Corn Pudding Recipe using Mexican mint marigold leaves.
Jim Long's recipes and garden stories can also be found on his gardening adventures blog: JimLongsGarden.BlogSpot.com