Grow a Mexican Herb Garden

Grow a Mexican Herb Garden Featured Image

Several key herbs and peppers create the foundation of Mexican cuisine. Everyone knows and loves cilantro and chile peppers, but have you ever tried epazote, Mexican oregano, or Mexican mint marigold? Add some authenticity and good flavor to your Mexican dishes this season with these herbs and spices!

Mexican Herbs

Some of the herbs essential to Mexican cooking originate from the Old World, such are cilantro, cumin, and Mexican thyme. But, most other herbs common to Mexican cuisine are regional natives that have been used to flavor the traditional foods of indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

Delicate white flowers of cilantro
The delicate white flowers of cilantro develop into coriander seeds. (Image by Jessie Keith)


Annatto (Bixa orellana, 20–33 feet, USDA Hardiness Zones 10-12), also called lipstick tree or achiote, is a tender tropical tree or shrub, but it can be grown and trained as a container specimen in cold-winter zones. It is native to the tropical Americas where its seeds have been used to impart sweet, peppery flavor, and bright orange-red color to foods for centuries. Southern Native American tribes also used it to color their skin and hair.

Tropical annatto can be grown in containers and overwintered indoors.

Gardeners in temperate areas can grow annatto in containers that can be brought outdoors in summer and overwintered in a sunny indoor location. They grow best in slightly acid soil that is evenly moist and fertile. Fafard® Professional Potting Mix is a good potting mix choice. Plant them in a large container, and keep them well pruned. In a couple of years, the evergreen shrubs will begin producing clusters of pretty, five-petaled pink flowers followed by hairy brownish-orange pods. These pods are filled with orange seeds that can be dried and enjoyed for cooking.


Freshly harvested epazote leaves
Freshly harvested epazote leaves.

The aromatic leaves of epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides, 2-3 feet, USDA Hardiness Zones 8-11) have a distinctive fennel taste when raw and develop a citrusy flavor when cooked. The leaves are commonly used in moles and soups. The rangy plants are not attractive, so surround them with prettier herbs, if garden appearance is important to you. The seeds are toxic, so cut back the flower heads to keep plants from setting seed. The leaves can also be a skin irritant for some.


The leaves of cilantro taste best in cool weather.

The flavorful leaves of cilantro (Coriandrum sativum, 18-24 inches) are common in many Mexican dishes and salsas, and the seeds are ground to make the spice, coriander. Cilantro is a cool-season annual herb that grows best in spring and fall. It prefers full sun and well-drained, fertile soil. Its frilly white flowers set round seed heads that readily self-sow, so don’t be afraid to sprinkle some of its seeds on the ground after it has begun to die back.


Cumin leaves
Cumin leaves are edible and their seeds are ground for spice.

Cumin (Cuminum cyminum, 12-15 inches) is a warm-season, drought-tolerant annual that has feathery, aromatic leaves that can be added to salads. Its flower heads look like delicate Queen-Anne’s-lace blooms. Once they have set seed, collect the seeds, and grind them to make the spice cumin. Grow it as you would cilantro, and give the plants at least three months to produce seed. Cumin is a key component of taco seasoning but also has a place in more traditional Mexican dishes.

Mexican Oregano

Mexican oregano flowers
Mexican oregano is pretty and has a lemony oregano flavor.

Native to the American Southwest down to Central America, Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens, 2-4 feet, USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11) tastes a bit like oregano but has a distinctive lemony flavor. The leaves are used to season meats, beans, and vegetables. Mexican oregano is a small, open shrub that bears clusters of pretty white summer flowers (similar to the blooms of Lantana camara), which are pollinated by butterflies. Its leaves can be used dried or fresh.

Mexican Thyme

Mexican thyme leaves
The succulent leaves of Mexican thyme can be used dried or fresh.

This semi-succulent African herb was brought to Mexico by the Spanish. Mexican thyme (Plectranthus amboinicus, 12-24 inches, USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11), also called Cuban oregano, has a strong oregano-like flavor and can be used fresh or dried to flavor meats. It grows best in partial sun and produces spikes of pretty lavender flowers during the growing months. This tender herb can be brought indoors in winter as a potted plant and is easy to propagate from cuttings. It likes well-drained potting soil, like OMRI Listed Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Mix.

Mexican Mint Marigold 

Mexican mint marigold
Mexican mint marigold is a pretty herb for the garden.

Mexican marigold (Tagetes lucida, 18-24 inches, USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10) is a native of Mexico and Central America, so it will tolerate high heat and drought. The slender, fragrant leaves of this herbal marigold are used to flavor pork, chicken, and vegetables. The shrubby tender perennial bears pretty yellow flowers in summer that attract bees. Grow it in full sun and average soil with good drainage.

Mexican Peppers

Peppers are New World plants native from southern North America to northern South America. Many different varieties are used to flavor food in Mexico, but several are more common in traditional foods.

Plant all peppers in full sun and provide them with well-drained soil fortified with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. They will also grow better if fed with a tomato and vegetable fertilizer. Their small white flowers are bee-pollinated, so be sure to avoid using insecticides on them. Most peppers require staking or caging to support their heavy fruits. (Click here for our video about pepper growing.)  Here are three essential peppers for Mexican cooking.


Jalapeño mature to red but are most often eaten green.

Favored for spicing up salsas, jalapeño peppers (Capsicum annuum, 24-30 inches) are often harvested green, though they will mature to a deep red color. Like all peppers, they are warm-season vegetables that thrive in heat and will tolerate drought. Jalapeños have medium heat (3,500 to 8,000 Scoville Heat Units).

Poblano (Ancho) Chile

Poblano pepper
Poblano peppers are most productive in late summer.

The poblano chile (Capsicum annuum, 2.5-4 feet, has mild heat (1000-1500 Scoville Heat Units), and its origin is attributed to Puebla, Mexico. The peppers mature to a purplish brown, and when dried are called ancho chiles. The tall plants must be supported with a sturdy cage. These are the classic peppers used for chiles Rellenos and when dried they are used to flavor moles.

Serrano Chile

Serrano chiles
Serrano chiles turn from green to bright red.

Spicy serrano chiles (Capsicum annuum, 24 feet) are generally harvested red and added to fresh salsas. They are spicy (10,000–23,000 Scoville Heat Units), very flavorful, and sweet when fully mature. One plant will produce a wealth of peppers.

Any one of these herbs or peppers will spice up your garden and cooking, so consider planting your own Mexican herb garden this season!

Growing Hot Peppers

Capsicum annuum red chillies
Red chilies ready for the picking!

By summer’s end, I am generally picking hot peppers by the bucket. Three years ago it was the pasilla chili ‘Holy Moly’, last year it was ‘Hot Portugal’ and ‘Serrano’ and this year (with a little luck) it will be ‘Pasilla Bajio’, ‘Hot Lemon’, and super spicy ‘Red Savina’ habanero. As long as summers are hot and relatively dry, I can count on them. And friends and family reap the rewards of the many hot sauces, pickled peppers and relishes that will follow.
The popularity of hot peppers has grown with the hottest of the hots taking the limelight. The legendary Bhut jolokia (ghost pepper),  ‘Naga Viper’ and ‘Carolina Reaper’ are three of the hottest peppers in the world, hence their wide popularity. Many others have outstanding flavor with more tolerable heat for the average pepper lover. But buying hot peppers is expensive, and some of the best are not sold in stores, so with pepper madness in the air, it pays to get to know and learn to grow these fruits.

Capsicum annuum 'Serrano' (Longum Group)
An unripe green serrano pepper.

Hot Pepper History

Even though peppers are a staple in cuisines worldwide, they are New World plants that did not exist in the Old World until they were first brought to Europe by the Spaniards around 500 years ago. A close relative of tomatoes and eggplant, peppers hot or sweet are defined by the generic name Capsicum and have several things in common. The smooth-leaved annuals or perennials bear fleshy, hollow, edible fruits with a spongy central rib lined with flattened oily seeds.
Fruits can be red, yellow, orange, purple, brown or green and may be elongated, round, or blocky. For gardeners and cooks, sweetness, flavor and heat are the most defining characteristics of the fruit. And, when it comes to chili pepper heat, Scoville Units are where it’s at.

Hot, Hotter, and Hottest

Round 'Cherry Bomb' hot peppers
Round ‘Cherry Bomb’ hot peppers are pretty and only moderately spicy.

The Scoville Scale measures Scoville Units, the formal unit of measurement for a pepper’s heat. They measure the presence of a suite of 22 chemicals called capsaicinoids—the best known being capsaicin. The concentrations of these spicy compounds are analyzed for the scale, so the higher the Scoville Units, the hotter the pepper. For example, the Carolina Reaper maintains 2,200,000 Scoville Units while the poblano measures an average of 1,000 to 4,000 Scoville Units.
Environmental factors can also impact a pepper’s heat. Hot, dry weather tends to generate more intense fruits with more intense spice and “bite”, while cooler, moister weather yields milder peppers. So, it’s important to know how to grow these fruits if high heat is what you are aiming for.

Growing Hot Peppers

Truly, the hotter the weather and brighter the sun is, the happier your pepper plants will be. Choose friable soil of average fertility and a slightly acid pH. Amending with a fertile, slightly acid amendment like Fafard’s Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss, is a good choice.
When planting peppers, be sure to stake or cage them to help support the broad, bushy plants and their fruits. Plants with larger, heavier fruits are at greater risk of toppling over in rain and wind. As with most vegetables, fertilization is really important to encourage the best growth and fruit output. Choose a quality fertilizer formulated for tomatoes, like Black Gold Tomato and Vegetable Fertilizer. A light sprinkling with garden-grade Epsom salt will also keep plants from suffering from Magnesium deficiency, a common problem with peppers.

Hot Pepper Types

Capsicum frutescens
Tabasco pepper flowers

From the Guinness Book of World Record’s hottest ‘Carolina Reaper’ pepper to relatively mild poblano chilis, hot peppers come in all colors, shapes, sizes and heat levels. Peppers are heavily cultivated plants, so most botanists have thrown away any attempt to formally categorize them. Cultivated plants like these are named and classified by horticulturists. To keep it simple, it’s cultivar (a.k.a. cultivated variety) names, like ‘Ghost’, ‘Naga Viper’, ‘Holy Moly’, and ‘Spanish Spice’, and essential common names, like Jalapeno, Habanero, and Cayenne, that define these peppers.

Harvest and Hot Sauce

When harvesting really hot peppers, protect your fingers. The spicy compounds can actually burn your skin. Snipping them with a pair of fine shears is a good method. The skin should also be protected when cutting and preparing peppers for cooking. A pepper’s heat is most concentrated along the inner lining and seeds, so remove them if you want less heat. And when it comes to cooking, homemade hot sauce is a great choice.

Homemade Garlic Sambal

Chiles ready for sauce making
Chiles ready for sauce making!

We eat a lot of sambal, a spicy Southeast Asian chile-based condiment. At its heart, it simply contains chiles and salt, but other ingredients can be added to liven it up, such as garlic, vinegar and sugar.
I made my own version of garlic sambal with a couple surprise (non-traditional) ingredients. The result is really good, though I also credit the positive outcome to the quality of the fresh-picked chiles from my garden.  The peppers chosen (‘Hot Portugal‘ and red jalapeños) are only moderately hot, so this sauce can be eaten like a spicy, slightly sweet, garlicky ketchup. I make small batches, but the recipe can be doubled.


1 pound fresh, red chile peppers, whole with tops removed
2/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon agave syrup
1 small apple, peeled and sliced
3 large cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon salt


Add the chiles to a medium saucepan and put on medium to medium-low heat. Add 1/3 cup of the vinegar, salt, and cover. Cook the chiles for around 15 minutes or until they have softened. Next add the water, remaining 1/3 cup of vinegar, agave syrup and apples. Cover and cook for another 15 minutes or so until the apples have softened and the liquid has reduced.
Allow the mix to partially cool. When it’s still warm, transfer it to a blender or food processor along with the fresh garlic cloves. Mix it until smooth, then taste. Adjust the flavor with more agave syrup and salt as needed. If it’s too thick, add a little water or vinegar. Place in a lidded glass jar and refrigerate.

Use as a condiment or as an addition to marinades and sauces.

Chillies and chilli sauce