Neil Sperry

Neil Sperry: Mexican mint marigold brings fall color, butterflies

Mexican mint marigold stands more upright than its mundane cousin and its leaves are shaped differently.
Mexican mint marigold stands more upright than its mundane cousin and its leaves are shaped differently.

For most of the growing season, it’s just a pretty little plant in your garden of herbs. Maybe it grows to be 16 or 18 inches tall if you give it reasonable care, but other than green leaves with an unusual fragrance, it’s pretty much just another plant.

And then mid-fall arrives, and with the seasonal shift, this great little plant suddenly bursts forth with the most glorious golden yellow blossoms you’ve ever seen. It’s hard to know who’s happier to see them: the gardener who has tired of all the end-of-season flowers that are just about to play out anyway, or the hundreds of butterflies that gravitate to the plant and its blooms. Everybody leaves the place happy.

So what is the name of this shining star of the fall sky?

“It’s a marigold?!” you exclaim.

Yep. Mexican mint marigold, Tagetes lucida.

Mexican mint marigold looks similar to the marigolds you’ve grown all of your life, only the plant is more upright and the leaves are larger and shaped differently.

So you look a little more closely. You decide the flowers do, indeed, look somewhat akin to the marigolds you’ve grown all of your life. But the plant is decidedly more upright, and the leaves don’t match up at all. They’re much larger and of a different shape.

And, oh, that aroma. Instead of the instantly recognizable marigold “smell” (as distinguished from the words “fragrance” and “aroma”), it’s like a big juicy piece of black licorice. (And you didn’t even think you liked licorice.)

And my cooking friends tell me they use this as a fresh-garden substitute for tarragon in their dishes, since tarragon isn’t especially fond of our summers.

I’ve grown Mexican mint marigold in my garden for the past 25 or 30 years. It’s a perennial plant, although I’ve lost my plants in a couple of extremely cold winters. We live and I garden in a rural area that’s typically 6 or 8 degrees colder than the urban heat pockets around the big cities, so odds are that once you plant it, you’ll have it forever.

The plants are readily available in nurseries each spring, however, so if you ever do lose it, you can quickly get back in business.

Another plus for this perennial? It doesn’t get spider mites. That’s like finding a dog that won’t get fleas.

Mexican mint marigold is stunning when planted in tandem with contrasting colors that bloom at the same time: Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) and fall aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium). Both produce purple and lavender shades in the fall, and both, like the marigold, are perennials.

I can even picture plantings where Mexican mint marigold would be blooming alongside foliage of summertime annuals copper plants, purple fountaingrass, Burgundy Sun coleus and purple-leaf ornamental sweet potatoes.

There’s yet another difference between Mexican mint marigold and its much more mundane annual sisters: This one doesn’t get spider mites. That’s like finding a dog that won’t get fleas. Spider mites are the death of spring marigolds in the annual flower garden. Yet, you’ll never see them on Mexican mint perennial marigold. (Perhaps they don’t like licorice either.)

How to plant

Grow Mexican mint marigolds in full or nearly full sun. Plant them from 4-inch or 1-gallon pots in April, spacing the plants 15 or 18 inches apart in the beds.

Although they’re tolerant of drought, you’ll have the best luck if you keep them modestly moist through the whole growing season. Apply an all-nitrogen food in spring and early summer, and reshape the developing plants if any of their stems grow out of place (rarely needed). Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine a perennial requiring any less care.

I have transplanted my Mexican mint marigolds one time when I abandoned a garden due to encroaching shade. I did so in early spring, just as the new shoots started emerging from the ground. I don’t remember that I divided the plants at that time, but in looking at my plantings just now, it would be easy enough to do so.

My story is more fun to tell when I say I just planted it and left it pretty much to its own accord. About the only routine care I give it is to prune the stems back near the ground once we’ve had our first hard freeze.

Look around this weekend. Now that you’ve seen this plant here and had it identified, odds are you’ll notice it in some of the nicer landscapes in your neighborhood. If so, you’ll fit right in when you plant your own next spring.

If not, you’ll be the standout — the one who starts the new trend. The one who planted the butterfly magnets. It might make you the talk of the town.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.

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