Homegrown Mints for Cooling Libations: Mojitos and Juleps

Mojitos have become a favorite tart, herbal summer drink!

Parched summer palates demand refreshments that are icy cold, wet, and flavorful.  For sophisticated adult palates, the mojito, a classic Cuban cocktail, and the julep, beloved in the American South, check all the right summer boxes. Mint, muddled or crushed with sugar prior to the addition of liquid ingredients, adds distinctive flavor notes to these drinks.

But, which mint is best for an authentic mojito or traditional julep?  The Mentha genus is large and full of popular varieties and hybrids.  That kind of abundance is a blessing for cooks and cocktail makers, but it can also be daunting.  The mints below are the best choices for these fabled libations.

The Mojito: A Taste of Havana

Fresh spearmint makes fabulous mojitos.

There are many origin stories associated with the mojito (click here for the traditional Havana-style recipe), but one thing is clear–it was popularized by novelist Ernest Hemingway, who first enjoyed it in the 1950s at a favorite Havana bar.  The cocktail’s fame spread, and by 2002, even super-spy James Bond tossed one back in the film Die Another Day.

A classic mojito embodies the flavor of the Caribbean in a fizzy mix of white rum, lime juice, mint, sugar, and club soda or sparkling water.  Ice cubes keep the drink cold. Nonalcoholic versions omit the rum.

Spearmint was the preferred mint for drinks in the early 20th century.

Until early in the 21st century, mixologists looking for mint to flavor mojitos often used spearmint (Mentha spicata), which has a familiar, piquant mint flavor.  Some drink makers also used peppermint (Mentha x piperita), but the mint flavor in peppermint leaves is much stronger and spicier than that of spearmint.

Around 2006, Cuban mint (Mentha x villosa), native to the island, began making appearances in the United States, and bartenders started using this “original” mojito mint in the rum drinks.  Since that time, Cuban mint has become more readily available, especially for those who are willing to grow their own.

Mint connoisseurs say that Cuban mint has a somewhat milder flavor than spearmint, along with citrus notes that marry well with the lime juice in the cocktail.

Jubilant Mint Juleps

Frosty mint juleps were originally served in silver cups but glass is also used these days.

The mint julep (click here for the traditional recipe from the Kentucky Derby) comes with its own collection of romantic and/or evocative stories, featuring a cast of larger-than-life characters ranging from Andrew Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway (a prodigious cocktail consumer).  The drink, traditionally served in a frosty silver or pewter cup, is a popular hot-weather tipple all over the South (and elsewhere) but is most often associated with the Kentucky Derby.  It has been the official cocktail of the Derby since 1983, and hundreds of thousands of them have been served to racegoers ever since.

Juleps were originally served in silver cups, like this antique one.

Juleps are traditionally made with bourbon, mint, sugar, and lots of shaved or crushed ice.  Julep aficionados might argue that quality bourbon is the most important component, but the mint also plays a defining role.  In many recipes, the instructions simply refer to “mint leaves”, without reference to specific types. Overall, the most common mint for juleps is spearmint, which harmonizes nicely with both the sugar and the bourbon. 

In a bow to tradition and the Derby, one variety of spearmint, with especially large leaves, was named ‘Kentucky Colonel’, however, any spearmint will work well in the drink.

Other Mint Options

Variegated pineapple mint is tasty and pretty.

Cocktail purists might frown, but you can enhance the flavors of mojitos and juleps with other mints, according to personal taste. Mojitos, with their lime flavor components, might include lime-scented peppermint (Mentha x piperata f. citrata ‘Lime’).  While a challenge to hallowed tradition might just be enough to scare the horses at Churchill Downs, julep lovers who like the combination of mint and chocolate can flavor their drinks with chocolate mint (Mentha x piperata ‘Chocolate’).  It is pretty and tastes sensational. The chocolate flavor is mild but discernible. The pretty variegated pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’) is another sweet variety to try for a fruity twist.

Grow Your Own Cocktail Mixers

Chocolate mint is my favorite for drinks!

Whether you are making mojitos or juleps, mint is extremely easy to grow.  Start from seed, young nursery plants, or cuttings from an established plant.  Cuttings from mint family members, including spearmint and Cuban mint, will root quickly in a glass of water and can then be transplanted to soil-filled containers. 

Mint’s vigor may also be its greatest liability in garden situations.  In rich, moist soil mint spreads rapidly and may take over increasingly large areas in beds and borders.  To keep the plants within bounds, grow them in containers filled with a good potting medium, like Fafard Natural and Organic Potting Mix.  You can sink the containers in the ground, or simply keep them near the kitchen door for those times when you want to make mojitos, juleps, or other minty specialties.

Always pot mint plants to keep them from taking over.

Harvest mint leaves regularly, as this keeps mints compact and full.  Aim to harvest before the plants flower, as flowering tends to make the mature leaves somewhat bitter.  If you can’t use those leaves right away, preserve them by air drying or freezing. Homegrown, preserved mint almost always tastes better than the dried product available on store shelves.

Mints die back to the ground in cold climates but return in spring and also self-seed readily.  You can also bring potted specimens indoors, and overwinter them on sunny windowsills.  Take cuttings from those plants in spring and root them, ensuring that you will have a supply of healthy young specimens for the growing season.

Zesty Edible Flowers for Good Looks and Good Eats

Zesty Edible Flowers for Good Looks and Good Eats Featured Image
Signet marigolds are small, beautiful, and tasty.

Some edible flowers pack a big ornamental punch in the garden and an equally large flavor punch in the kitchen. These include the blooms of a few traditional garden annuals as well as the flowers of some lesser-known ornamental herbs that should be a mainstay in any edible ornamental garden. Add them to salads, flavorful herbal butter, and vegetable dishes to provide an impressive flourish to your cooking.

Herbal Edible Flowers

There are lots of herbs that double up as garden flowers and garden flowers with herbal qualities. Here are some of the best.

This African Blue basil in bud
This African Blue basil is in bud and on the verge of producing copious lavender-pink flowers.

African Blue Basil (Ocimum ‘African Blue’, 18 to 24 inches) is likely the most beautiful garden basil of them all. Plant it as an ornamental annual for its purplish leaves and copious spikes of attractive lavender-pink flowers that just keep coming. Bees love them, too. Pick a stem of flowers to top off pasta dishes, salads, and vegetables. Pinch back spent flower stems to keep more coming. Its leaves also made a punchy pesto.

'Slam Queen' Thai basil
‘Siam Queen’ Thai basil (Image thanks to AAS Winners)

Gardeners that love Thai food should not be without the award-winning annual Siam Queen basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Siam Queen’, 12-18 inches). It is one of those plants that never disappoints. Not only do its leaves and flowers have a strong clove and anisette-like flavor ideal for Thai cooking, but its equally edible clusters of purplish-maroon flowers bloom nonstop and the plant thrives in the heat.

Herrenhauses oregano flowers
Herrenhausen oregano has beautiful flower clusters that are tasty and attract lots of bees.

There are many ornamental oreganos, but Herrenhausen oregano (Origanum laevigatum ‘Herrenhausen’, USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9) is a classic perennial that reaches 18-24 inches and produces flushes of rosy-purple flowers in summer that the bees cannot resist. The aromatic flowers are also very flavorful and impart a sweet oregano flavor.

Butterfly on chive blossoms
Chive blossoms have a mild oniony flavor, and the flowers lure bees and butterflies,

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum, Zones 3-9) are spring bloomers with some of the tastiest and prettiest mauve flowers that lend a gentle kick of onion to salads and vegetable dishes. The perennial herb looks lush in spring, tapers off in summer, and then provides a flush of fresh chive leaves again in fall.

When in full bloom, annual Signet marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia, 12-18 inches) create a mound of bright color and their little petals have a pungent, somewhat citrusy flavor that lends good taste to heirloom tomato salads and other festive summer vegetable dishes.

Lady Godiva® Orange pot marigold (Image thanks to Proven Winners®)
Lady Godiva® Orange pot marigold creates a spectacular specimen plant. (Image thanks to Proven Winners®)

Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) is a cheerful, cool weather annual that has flowers in warm colors. Its petals have a spicy flavor that lends interest to salads. You can also dry them to make herbal tea. Normally, the plants start to decline as they set seed, but the Proven Winners® variety Lady Godiva® Orange does not set seed, so it blooms nonstop and creates a spectacular specimen plant with tasty petals.

Nasturtiums in the Alaska series
Nasturtiums in the Alaska series have brilliant flowers and variegated leaves.

Summer blooming nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) have beautiful flowers of orange, gold, pink, and red with a peppery taste like watercress. The plants grow as vines or compact specimens. There are many beautiful varieties available. Those in the Whirlybird Mix are compact, come in all colors, are easy to grow, and just the right size for pots. Those in the Alaska series are equally compact and pretty but their leaves are variegated. If you’re more interested in a large, vining variety, try ‘Empress of India‘. The 1889 heirloom has blue-green leaves and deepest orange flowers. Add the blooms to salads or to decorate a savory summer cocktail, like a bloody Mary.

Growing Edible Flowers

Stressed nasturtium in this pot (Image by Jessie Keith)
The nasturtium in this pot is showing stress because the container is not quite large enough to sustain it through a season. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The beauty of growing these edible flowers is that all of them are very easy to successfully cultivate, and their growing needs are largely the same. Grow them in full sun and provide quality garden soil with good drainage and average soil moisture. The addition of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost will improve overall performance. A granular fertilizer formulated for flowering is also recommended. If planting them in containers, choose large containers spacious enough to accommodate the plants, and fill them with Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed. Then harvest and enjoy your edible flowers through the season.

Beautiful Culinary Sage

Beautiful Culinary Sage Featured Image
In late spring to early summer, sage produces purplish or violet flowers (far right).
Click Here button for Nursery Ready Plant List

For better or worse, we live in the age of multitasking, when the ability to do at least two things at once has become a common goal. As we multitask through our days, we gardeners can’t help but ask our plants to do the same. Fortunately, the enormous salvia clan has been multitasking for millennia. Ornamental forms of culinary sage, mostly Salvia officinalis, are champion multitaskers, contributing flavor to our food and beauty to our landscapes. Gardening and life don’t get much better than that.

Culinary sage is a pungent herb. For many families, it does a star turn at Thanksgiving in turkey dressing. It also has affinities to pork, poultry, eggs, sausage, and savory ravioli. When food is rich, a little sage can save the day by cutting tastefully through heavy flavors.

Sage also remains beautiful in the garden from fall and through winter. Its evergreen leaves may droop on the coldest winter days, but they maintain substance and can still be harvested.

Growing Sage

Standard sage
Standard sage is evergreen and pretty in its own right.

The plants are shrubby perennials that generally grow 12- to 18-inches tall and wide but can be kept shorter by timely light pruning in late spring or after flowering. Standard varieties have elongated oval leaves that are velvety and a little wrinkled on the surface. Lavender-blue or purple flowers appear in May or June. These are also edible.

In the garden, sage favors sunny, well-drained spaces, and benefits from quality soil amendments like Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost and Garden Manure Blend. Once established, sages require little care and offer a steady supply of evergreen leaves for fresh or dry use. (Dry by hanging tied stems in a cool, dry place until crisp.) Hardiness depends on the variety but sage can generally withstand quite cold winters. It is wise to check plant tags at purchase time for hardiness specifics.

Culinary Sage Varieties

'Tricolor' sage
‘Tricolor’ sage is ivory edged with purplish new growth.

One of the most beautiful varieties is ‘Tricolor’ (USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9).  The plants feature elongated gray-green leaves edged and marked with cream. New growth is both purple and ivory edged.  Equally suitable for pots, herb gardens, or front- to mid-border positions, ‘Tricolor’ is also a useful, aromatic filler for bouquets.

Purple sage
Purple sage has very attractive purple new growth.

Another eye-catching variety is ‘Purpurescens’ or purple sage (Zones 6-9). The young leaves are purple, while older ones age to gray-green. Its flavor is as intense as any culinary sage, and the colors bring real life to beds and borders.

Golden sage
Golden sage has the brightest color of the ornamental culinary sage varieties.

For something a little more luxurious, try ‘Aurea’.  Featuring brighter green leaves, it attracts attention with its golden edging.  ‘Icterina’ is similar to ‘Aurea’, but the foliage is more subdued and edged in pale green.  Like ‘Ictarina’, the less common ‘Woodcote’ also boasts pale-green leaf edges, contrasting with darker green centers.

'Berggarten' sage
The silver-grey leaves of ‘Berggarten’ sage are broad and ornamental.

‘Berggarten’ features more silvery leaves that are fatter. Its habit is also neater and mounded, making it especially useful for flower gardens and container culture.  For dramatic edging in a large bed, alternate ‘Berggarten’ with its bi-colored sport, ‘Variegated Berggarten’, which features leaves with creamy-yellow leaf edges.

'Ictarina' sage
‘Ictarina’ is a more subdued variegated sage.

In addition to pretty leaves, culinary salvia produces spikes of lavender-blue or purple blooms that attract bees while discouraging deer and other marauding creatures. For flower contrast and culinary prowess, choose pink-flowered ‘Rosea’. The leaves are solid green and aromatic, growing on plants that may be a little larger (36 inches tall and wide) than some other salvias.

Decorative culinary sages can also work well in smaller spaces. The petite ‘Compacta’ tops out at about eight inches. Its flowers are vivid purple and aromatic leaves contribute the same flavor punch. 

Pineapple Sage

Pineapple sage
The red fall flowers of pineapple sage feed migrating hummingbirds. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Other species are also edible and ornamental. Bushy pineapple sage (Salvia elegans, Zones 8-10) reaches a great height of 3-4 feet. The tender perennial grows quickly and should be treated as an annual in cold-winter climates. It features intensely aromatic leaves that exude the fruity scent of fresh pineapple.  Minced in fruit salad or muddled in hot or cold drinks, the leaves are a great addition to the home cook’s herbal arsenal. It is a fall bloomer that sports vivid scarlet blooms that lure migrating hummingbirds.

The ‘Golden Delicious’ variety adds an extra dimension to the landscape with the brightest golden-green, aromatic leaves. This one also reaches great heights, so it needs ample space, but don’t let this deter you from growing it. Judicious pruning can reduce its overall dimensions and stimulate branching and more flowers.

You can use culinary sages to adorn herb gardens, but don’t stop there.  Beds, borders, containers (mixed or single variety) and window boxes all become more interesting when decorative culinary sage is added to the mix.