While it may not be top of mind when you sip a Margarita, nearly all of the beverages we consume come from plants. Apart from plain water and traditional dairy milk, virtually everything else--coffee, tea, cocoa, wine, beer, fruit and vegetable juices, cola, vodka, bourbon—the list goes on!—starts in a garden. In addition to the basic beverages we consume every day, the flavor, aroma, and visual excitement of unique plant ingredients has also become an essential part of the carefully crafted cocktails and other drinks we enjoy. You might be surprised to learn that some of the most interesting and flavorful edible plant ingredients are actually easy to grow and make attractive additions to an existing landscape. Down the road, you might even be inspired to go all out and create a unique, drink-themed section of your garden. For now, here is a list of unfussy, coast-friendly plants that will take your mixology skills to a new level.
Scented Geraniums (Pelargonia spp.):
The sophisticated cousin of the old-fashioned geranium, these lovely, fragrant plants come in a variety of colors and have velvety leaves full of fragrant oils that mimic rose petals, apples, lemons, chocolate mint, and many other flavors. Despite their talents, scented geraniums are very tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. They grow quickly in sun and light shade, in practically all types of soil, need minimal water, are rarely bothered by insects or disease and deer won't touch them. They could be the perfect plant! Lightly crush a few leaves and add directly to lemonade and iced tea or simmer a handful in simple syrup to make a sophisticated infusion for mixed drinks.
Borage (Borago officinalis):
This hardy Mediterranean native is a bushy plant that makes a great addition to anyone's garden. As a member of the pollinator pantheon, it is a favorite of bees and a companion plant for tomatoes, cabbage and strawberries. Borage is easily started from seed and grows quickly in sunny spots where it will self- seed year after year. Tender borage leaves have a delicate cucumber flavor but the electric blue blossoms are where the real drink action is. To turn even the plainest beverage into a showstopper, freeze the star-shaped blossoms in individual ice cubes and add them to the glass.
Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora):
This attractive woody herb has shiny green leaves that taste and smell amazingly like lemon. Known as “Verveine” in France, the leaves are used to make a soothing herbal tea but the bright, citrusy aroma and taste lends itself to all kinds of potions including a liqueur similar to Chartreuse. It is compact, relatively slow growing and produces delicate sprays of small, pale lilac blossoms starting in mid- summer. Like most herbs, Lemon Verbena likes plenty of sun, low to moderate water and does well in containers. It is low maintenance and well-suited to mild coastal winter conditions. Lemon Verbena leaves are full of aromatic oils and retain their fragrance for many months when dried. Use the leaves straight or lightly muddled with sugar or simmer a few sprigs in a simple syrup and add to mixed drinks and spritzers.
Must-have Mints (Lamiaceae):
There are over 25 varieties of mint including some with unique and surprising flavors such as chocolate, lavender, strawberry, pineapple and banana. If you can only pick one, Spearmint (Mentha spicata), is the variety to choose and the one that lends its compelling flavor and aroma to Juleps and Mojitos. Due to the popularity of the latter, you may even find mint plants marketed as “Mojito Mint.” All types of mint are vigorous perennials and spread easily. To prevent your mint plants from taking over the entire garden, plant them first in an 8-12” pot to control the roots and then plant the pot in the ground. Mint will thrive in moist, slightly acidic soils, a little shade and good drainage.
Fun fact: the best way to release essential mint oil is to place a sprig on the palm of one hand and give it one or two smart claps before adding to your drink.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus):
These herbaceous flowers are native to South and Central America and come in a range of vibrant colors. Both the leaves and flowers are high in vitamin C and have a peppery flavor reminiscent of watercress and radishes. Nasturtiums grow rapidly in almost any kind of soil, do well in sun or shade and don't mind being neglected. Plant them in a corner of your garden or let them trail over a rock wall. They will self-seed and return year after year. Muddle a few blossoms with sugar and salt to rim a Margarita glass--easy and impressive!
Now, about that Margarita garden...
For more information and answers to questions about the plants in your garden, contact the UC SM-SF Master Gardener Helpline by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (650) 276-7430.
Jamie Chan is a UC Master Gardener from the San Mateo-San Francisco Chapter. A San Francisco native, she is Director of Programs and Partnerships at The Gardens of Golden Gate Park and an adjunct professor at SF State University. The article was edited by SM-SF Master Gardeners Maggie Mah, and Cynthia Nations.