Fall brings two of my favorite herbs, Mexican Mint Marigold and Pineapple Sage, to life. Both of these herbs grow quietly and unassumingly all summer and come mid-September to October, they burst into color and continue to dominate the garden until the first frost.
Mexican Mint Marigold has charming golden yellow daisy-like blossoms and Pineapple Sage has brilliant scarlet red tubular flowers. They look stunning planted alongside each other and since they have similar water and sun requirements they are happy neighbors.
Mexican Mint Marigold | Tagetes lucida
Full Sun to Part Sun
Consistently Moist Soil
2’ tall x 1’ wide
Mexican mint marigold has a lot going for it: it thrives in our hot, humid summers, its small, bright flowers blossom in the fall when we are longing for color, and its anise flavor is a successful substitute for French tarragon. The flavor breaks down quickly when heated, so it is best added at the end of cooking. As with most herbs, the flowers are edible and look attractive in salads or as a garnish.
It grows as a neat, upright bush (taller than wide) with dark green, narrow, sharply toothed leaves. It is equally attractive in the flower border as it is in the herb garden, especially when it is covered in clusters of 3/8” golden yellow flowers.
Mexican Mint Marigold is winter dormant, and although it is slow to emerge in the spring, it reliably returns in my North Texas garden. Plants grow well in full sun (with afternoon protection) or part sun in well drained, but consistently moist soil. It has no significant pest or disease problems, but is subject to root rot in waterlogged soils.
Leaves can be snipped throughout the growing season as needed. Harvest just before an expected frost by removing no more than one third of the plant. Bundles of stems can be hung to dry, or individual leaves removed and dried on screens. The dried leaves retain their flavor well if kept in a sealed container and protected from heat and light.
Mint Marigold is easily propagated by stem cuttings, division or layering. It will also re-seed if it is in a happy spot.
Its Latin name, Tagetes, probably comes from the name Tages, an Etruscan deity said to be the grandson of Jupiter. A boy with the wisdom of an old man who sprang from the ground, he practiced the art of soothsaying (the gift of prophesy). The specific name, lucida, means “bright” or “shining” and most likely refers to its bright yellow-gold flowers.
The Aztecs allegedly developed a ritual incense known as Yauhtli. The leaves of Mexican Mint Marigold were one of the ingredients in a medicinal powder which was blown into the faces of those about to become the victims of human sacrifice; the powder was said to stupefy them.
The dried plant is burned as incense and to repel insects. A poultice of the leaves is a traditional treatment for rattlesnake and scorpion bites.
Both the flowers and the leaves make a spicy tea. The flowers are used to make a yellow dye. The leaves are used in potpourri mixes as a fragrant filler. The leaves are a tasty substitute for French tarragon, which sulks in our climate.
Here is a recipe for an easy oven shrimp scampi that I adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe. It serves four as a first course:
¼ cup Olive Oil
2 large Shallots, grated
2 cloves Garlic, minced
1 cup Mexican Mint Marigold leaves, finely chopped
½ cup dried Bread Crumbs
Juice of one Lemon
32 large Shrimp, peeled and deveined
In a heavy skillet, heat the olive oil and sauté the shallots and garlic just until they soften. Stir in the Mexican Mint Marigold leaves and bread crumbs. When well mixed, remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and let cool. Combine with the shrimp and aromatics and let rest for thirty minutes. Place the shrimp on a foil-lined baking sheet and spoon more topping on each shrimp. Broil until the shrimp are pink and the topping is well browned. Serve immediately.
Pineapple Sage | Salvia elegans
Full Sun to Part Sun
Consistently Moist Soil
3’ x 2’
Pineapple sage is an under-rated and under-used herb in the garden. It’s a large, neatly sprawling, shrubby plant whose bright, somewhat downy leaves are a delicate shade of green all summer long. Just as the season is winding down, it becomes the centerpiece of the garden with its intensely scarlet red trumpet-shaped flowers that attract butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators. A bonus is that the leaves really do smell like tropical pineapple.
Most of the references say that it is hardy in zone 8, but in my garden it seems to be on the edge of its comfort zone. I consider it a tender perennial because if it’s in a protected area, and we have a mild winter, it will return from its roots. The first hard frost will turn the leaves black and overnight this ravishing beauty transforms into a hag. Cut the stems back to the ground, leaving just enough stubble to mark its location and mulch heavily. It is slow to emerge in the spring, but as the weather warms gradually pull back the mulch and cross your fingers.
It traditionally grows three feet tall, but I have heard many gardeners say it grows five feet tall in their gardens (especially if it comes back from the previous year’s growth). As with most salvias, it doesn’t demand fertilizer, but the soil should be consistently moist. If you wish to keep the plant more compact and bushy, cut it back two or three times, but not after early July or you’ll miss the flower show. Pineapple Sage can make a dramatic statement in a large pot on the patio, but when temperatures reach 90 degrees, mulch the plant well and move it to receive afternoon shade.
Pineapple Sage is one of the few herbs that will overwinter indoors. When overnight temperatures start to drop, cut back the plant by two thirds. Place it in a sunny window and water sparingly. It roots quickly and easily from cuttings, so another option is to overwinter cuttings under lights until the warm weather arrives. As with any plant indoors, be on the lookout for pests.
The variety ‘Golden Delicious’ has clear yellow leaves that don’t appear chlorotic like most yellow leaved plants. It glows in part sun locations and the red flowers make it a striking plant when in bloom.
In the kitchen, it is best to use Pineapple Sage fresh because when it is dried the leaves lose their flavor. Add leaves to fruit drinks, teas and salads, where it’s pineapple scented leaves add a refreshing flavor. The flowers are also edible and look lovely in salads or used as a garnish. It is a traditional medicinal herb in Mexico, where it blooms year round.
Making a jelly is an easy way to preserve the flavor of Pineapple Sage.
Here is a recipe from my friend Nancy Heraud. http://lemonverbenalady.blogspot.com/2010/01/herbal-jelly-recipe-marathon.html. It makes four 8 ounce jars:
2 cups of frozen pineapple juice, reconstituted
1-1/2 cups of packed pineapple sage leaves
3-1/2 cups of sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 pinch of salt
1 pouch of liquid pectin
Wash and dry the pineapple sage in paper towels, then coarsely chop. Put the leaves in a large saucepan, and crush them, using the bottom of a glass. Add the juice, bring slowly to a boil and boil for ten seconds. Remove the saucepan from the heat; cover and let sit for 15 minutes to steep.
Strain 1-1/2 cups of liquid into another saucepan. Add lemon juice, salt and sugar and bring to a hard boil, stirring. When the boil can't be stirred down, add the pectin. Return to a hard boil that can't be stirred down and boil for exactly 1 minute, then remove saucepan from the heat.
Skim off the foam and pour the hot jelly into four jars. Leave 1/2" head space and seal. Can the jars in a boiling water bath for five minutes.
Light up your fall herb garden by growing Mexican Mint Marigold and Pineapple Sage. For a truly spectacular display, add some Fall Aster and Santa Barbara Sage. I promise you won’t be disappointed.