Enjoy hard-working plants

October 6, 2012

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Trees are for shade. Shrubs surround foundations. And herbs are for cooking. Right?

The answer is yes — and a resounding no!

Many plants serve myriad purposes. They often beautify the landscape while also flavoring foods, saving energy, lending fragrance or purifying the air.

Some of the most versatile plants for landscapes are edible as well as ornamental. They add form and texture to the garden and then delight the palate when harvested and eaten. A few of these attractive culinary plants include:

LEMON GRASS

For centuries, this ornamental grass (Cymbopogon citrayus) has been used in cuisines around the world. It grows 3’-4’ tall and wide, making a nice clumping plant with arching, aromatic foliage. Lemon grass is grown for its edible and attractive leaves, rather than for its plumes. Unlike other ornamental grasses, lemon grass does not produce large seed heads; it rarely blooms outside its native setting.

Place lemon grass in a sunny, well-drained location that has some protection from cold winds. Although botanically it is considered a perennial, in North Central Texas lemon grass is best grown as a tender herb that needs winter protection. Some gardeners cut lemon grass back by half in midseason to stimulate new growth. Like many edibles, this plant performs best if irrigated at root level rather than allowing water to stand on the leaves, which can lead to disease.

After the first frost, cut the foliage to the crown and add plenty of mulch at the base of the plant to protect its roots. Or, to better ensure its survival, dig up a portion of the plant and overwinter it in a container indoors. Use caution when planting and working around lemon grass; its foliage has sharp edges.

Chop or crush the light-colored base of the plant’s leaves, then cook this part of the lemon grass in stock or water to extract its lemon flavor. Use the liquid for cooking. You may also chop the green part of the leaves to add to recipes. Chopped green leaves may also be added to salads or used to flavor vinegar. Add them to boiling water to flavor tea. Lemon grass is often used in Southeast Asian, Mexican or Southwestern food. It may be used fresh, dried or frozen.

Lemon grass is also grown commercially for use in soaps, perfumes, candles, aromatherapy products and insect repellents (citronella essential oil).

MEXICAN MINT MARIGOLD

In fall, Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) gives gardens a lasting burst of sunshine with its bountiful yellow blooms. The daisy-like flowers may be cut and used in fragrant bouquets. This marigold’s leaves are used in teas, as seasoning and in medicines. Both leaves and flowers may be dried for later use; they retain their pleasant scent.

Also called Texas tarragon, Mexican mint marigold is native to Mexico and Central America. An upright, clumping perennial, it is easy to grow in full sun or partial shade. It is drought and heat tolerant, virtually disease free and needs little care. Like most herbs, Mexican mint marigold must have well-drained soil.

This herb grows 1’-2’ tall in a season, but dies to the ground in winter. Flowers appear on the plant as early as late summer and persist until late fall. Both the plant’s flowers and leaves are edible. Harvest the foliage anytime during the growing season. The leaves have a mild licorice flavor similar to French tarragon, for which it may be substituted. Leaves may be used to flavor butters, teas, vinegars and salad dressings. They are also used to season chicken dishes. Otherwise, dry the plant’s leaves and flowers to make potpourri or floral arrangements.

MEXICAN OREGANO

This herb is not true oregano! It shares many characteristics of the popular culinary herb, but it cannot always be used as a substitute. Mexican oregano (Poliomintha longiflora) is tough; it thrives in poor soil and in hot, dry conditions. It requires good drainage and will not tolerate wet soils.

Mexican oregano may be used as a nice flowering shrub; it produces attractive lavender blooms from spring to fall and it can easily be maintained at 2’-3’ tall. The light green foliage is edible and used to flavor dishes that typically incorporate oregano, such as Italian foods. You may also use the leaves to flavor vinegar or to mix with oil for basting. Add the flowers to salads. Harvest the leaves and use them fresh, dried or frozen.

Plant Mexican oregano in full sun to part shade and in well-drained soil. It makes a nice border plant for herb gardens, but it is also a good addition to perennial gardens. Butterflies and bees are drawn to this plant’s blooms. In North Central Texas, this herb may freeze to the ground. Trim it and watch it regrow by spring.

Other plants with multiple uses in the garden include, but are not limited to, rosemary, sunflowers, salad greens, salvia, germander, lavender and thyme.

EDIBLES IN THE LANDSCAPE

If you would like to know about edibles in the landscape, attend the Monday, Oct. 15, educational lecture sponsored by the Lake Granbury Master Gardeners. Call the AgriLife Extension at 817-579-3280 for information.

Resources: Garrett’s Herbs for Texas, Barrett’s What Can I Do With My Herbs?

For answers to your horticulture questions, call the Texas AgriLife Extension, Hood County at 817-579-3280 and ask to speak to a Master Gardener or visit the website at hoodcountymastergardeners.org.

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Category: Horticulture Archived