An herb to know: mexican mint marigold (tagetes lucida)

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"Mexican mint marigold has a lot to offer. It thrives in the hot, humid South, where many herbs languish; its small, bright flowers blossom in fall when other herbs have played out for the season; its licorice-anise flavor is a successful stand-in for French tarragon; and it looks good in the garden.

"This paragon, native to the mountains of Mexico and Guatemala, is a neat, upright bush some 3 feet tall with narrow, sharply toothed dark green leaves. Its scent recalls that of tarragon more than it does the pungent aroma of its familiar bedding-plant cousins, so-called French and African marigolds. In fall, if the growing season is long enough, the tips of the stems bear clusters of ⅜-inch golden yellow flowers.

"Cloud plant, as this herb is known in Mexico, was first documented there in the sixteenth century by Spanish explorers. According to legend, the ancient Aztec chieftains used a powder made from the aromatic leaves of mint marigold to calm the hapless victims of sacrificial rituals. The leaves have also been used medicinally in folk remedies for malaria, colic, and colds; a poultice of the leaves is a traditional treatment for rattlesnake bite." "Beside cloud plant, Mexican mint marigold has many other aliases, most alluding to its fragrance: sweet mace, Mexican or winter tarragon, sweet or mint-scented marigold, root beer plant, Mexican marigold mint, and yerba anis. Its Latin generic name, Tagetes, probably comes from 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 (or perhaps was plowed up), he taught the Etruscans the art of soothsaying. The specific name, lucida, means 'bright' or 'shining', probably referring to the bright yellow-gold flowers.

"T. lucida is closely related to both ordinary garden marigolds and the citrus-scented signet marigolds (T. tenuifolia). The latter are prized by herb gardeners as potpourri material as well as for their ornamental value. They are all native to the New World, unlike pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), the herb referred to as 'marigold' by Gerard, Culpeper, and other great herbalists.

"Chop the fresh leaves and use them to season chicken and tossed green salads, or brew them into a sweet, anise-flavored tea. The dried leaves retain their fragrance well if kept in a sealed glass container and protected from extreme heat and bright light..." "In the humid South, where French tarragon is difficult to grow, mint marigold is a fine culinary substitute. The flavor is almost indistinguishable from that of tarragon, but because mint marigold breaks down more quickly when heated, it's best if added at the end of cooking. In salads, vinegars, oils, or quick-cooking recipes, substitute it for tarragon in equal proportions.

"Mint marigold's dried leaves add fragrance to potpourris and sachets.

Harvest the long stems just before frost when they are tipped with yellow-gold flowers. While they're still green and pliable, weave them together in groups of six or nine as you would braid hair, then tie the two ends of each group together to form a circle. Dried leaves can be removed as needed for cooking. If the wreaths are made small and interwoven with other herbs, they can be tossed whole into a soup or stew as a bouquet garni.

"The flowers add long-lasting color to dried arrangements and bouquets. They are attractive combined with sweet Annie, broom, and goldenrod in harvest centerpieces, or bundle the stems with natural-colored raffia for fragrant hang-ups that add a warm ambiance to any room. For a change of pace and scale, clip the stems short and make miniature bouquets in tiny vases. As with other marigolds, Mexican mint marigold looks good and lasts well in fresh flower arrangements as well."

Excerpted from Diane Morey Sitton's "An Herb to Know" column in "The Herb Companion." April/May 1993, Vol. 5, No. 4. Pp. 20-21. Posted by Cathy Harned.

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