The common names of things bedevil us all. How about the New York egg cream, a refreshing mix of milk, fizzy water and chocolate or vanilla syrup? With no egg and no cream, the only truth to its name is the New York part.
Mustard spinach, a tasty Asian green, is neither a mustard nor a spinach. Safer to stick to its proper Japanese name, komatsuna.
So it was with some trepidation that I sowed something called Mexican mint marigold this year. It's the new kid on the herb block, a fact you'd know only by looking it up under several names mentioned in seed catalogs. These include sweet mace, Spanish tarragon, Texas tarragon, winter tarragon, cloud plant, yerba anis, coronilla and pericón.
I sowed the seeds indoors in April, lured by descriptions of the plant's appearance -- up to 3 feet tall, with long, strong, unbranched stems topped by small, bright yellow flowers. They sounded like good flowers for cutting and would be a great contrast to the blue-and-purple color scheme set by all the mint relatives I grow in my herb patch -- lavender, salvia, oregano, anise hyssop and thyme.
I was also intrigued by descriptions of its leaves' flavor. The plant's main claim to fame is its use as a tarragon substitute.
Regular French tarragon (which is in the genus Artemisia) is a magnificent herb, its licorice or anise-like notes tempered by a unique grassiness. Cold-climate gardeners sometimes lose it to winter cold, and those with very hot summers can't grow it at all. Furthermore, the real thing doesn't grow true to seed, only from cuttings or divisions. Any tarragon seed sold is likely to be the Russian kind. That grows fine, anywhere, but does it taste like tarragon? Nyet.
The botanical name of my new herb is Tagetes lucida, and the genus Tagetes includes the popular garden marigolds, so I looked for indented, marigold-looking foliage when my seeds germinated. But no, they had slender leaves that were more tarragon-like in shape. That's not unusual -- the leaves of closely related plants can vary. Conversely, it's also common for plants that are not closely related to share some of the essential oils that give herbs their flavors and scents.
Good germination was followed by sturdy growth. The transplants were planted around an urn in the middle of the herb garden. As I watched my new crop mature, I was in for more surprises, though. To my delight, the plants were not the leggy sort described, but compact, with branching stems, allaying my fears that they would overwhelm the space. They looked just right.
The flowers were like all the ones I'd seen in pictures -- five-petaled, brilliant gold and about the size of a dime. They started blooming early in July, not in fall, as I had consistently read. Even better! Either there is more than one strain of this plant (my seeds came from Johnny's Selected Seeds), or there's something about my particular garden that favored bushy growth and early bloom. Next year I might plant some in a different location just out of curiosity, or order from an additional source. Then again, it might self-sow, as it is purported to do.
When I tasted the leaves, they seemed quite strong and more minty than tarragony, but after trying them out in the kitchen, I admitted that they really did make a good stand-in for tarragon. Leaves chopped and added to a salad lended some tarragon notes, and in cooked dishes, too. I tried them at breakfast, mixed into a creamy sauce for poached eggs on English muffins. They also enhanced squash blossoms stuffed with cheese.
Next I added them to a Colombian-style stew I make with chicken, chicken broth, potatoes, corn, avocado, hot pepper and a blob of sour cream. That was great, too. But one needs to add the herb at the end of cooking. Heat brings out its flavor, but too much heat diminishes it.
The petals, like those of any marigold, make a sunny and good-tasting garnish when sprinkled over food. Sprinkling on top is the way to go, because stirring any flower into a liquid or an oil dressing will make it shrivel.
I'm delighted with the sight of this golden ring at the center of my garden, just outside my kitchen window. A prolonged dry spell has done nothing to dim its glory, and I'd recommend it to any gardener, wherever they live, and whatever they choose to call this excellent plant.