Arlington Hamilton

Master Gardener

If you want to make it through August in Texas without the frustration of losing many of the plants in your herb garden you should include a few natives. These are plants that will withstand and even thrive during our summer heat and drought.

Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) and (Poliomintha logiflora) are not true oreganos but have a strong smelling oregano scent and flavor. They are two of several species native to Texas and Mexico. These small perennial shrubs with bright green leaves yield an essential oil similar to that of oregano. Their blue-pink flowers bloom all summer and are attractive to hummingbirds. When you find Mexican recipes calling for oregano the leaves of these plants would generally be used. The flowers can be used in teas.

Sweet marigold, Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) is another perennial Texas native that should be in your herb garden. This is one of the last herbs to flower in the fall.

Texas herbalist, Madalene Hill, often told us to expect our first freeze two weeks after sweet marigold blooms. 

When I have remembered to track this I have noted a frost in my garden within 12 to 15 days of blooming. 

Use the flowers in salads and as a garnish. The anise flavored leaves are used to season any kind of meat, poultry, fish and eggs. It is best used fresh. It is an excellent culinary substitute for French tarragon, which is seldom grown successfully in our southern gardens.

Epazote (Chenopdium ambrosioides) is a short lived perennial or annual in the North Texas garden. The leaves are used to flavor Mexican foods and to marinate meats. 

Add a few stems to the bean pot during the last ten minutes of cooking to take gas out of field beans. In addition to its culinary uses, dried epazote is an effective room freshener. This plant can be invasive and will take over unmanaged gardens so use caution when planting. One plant will grow to six feet high and have a spread of three feet.

Hoja santa (Piper auritum) is an aromatic herb with a heart-shaped, velvety leaf.  The name means “sacred leaf” in Spanish. It is also known as yerba santa, Mexican pepper leaf, root beer plant and sacred pepper. The leaves can reach up to 12 inches or more in size. The complex flavor of hoja santa is not easy to describe; it has been compared to licorice, sassafras, anise, nutmeg, mint, tarragon and black pepper. It is native to the Americas, from northern South America to Mexico, and Southwest USA. In my garden hoja santa prefers a shady location, reaches four feet in height and covers a 5 to 6 foot area. 

In North Texas it will die back in the winter and re-emerge in midsummer. The fragrant leaves are often used in Mexican cuisine to wrap fish or meat for cooking, and as an essential ingredient in mole verde.

It is also chopped to flavor soups, such as pozole, and in eggs. 

In Central Mexico, it is used to flavor chocolate drinks. Hoja santa is generally used fresh.

Warning: The essential oils within the leaf are rich in safrole, a substance also found in sassafras, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in animals. In 1960 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned sassafras bark along with sassafras oil and safrole as flavoring agents because of their carcinogenic properties and the Council of Europe imposed the same ban in 1974, although some toxicological studies show that humans do not process safrole into its carcinogenic metabolite.

Arlene Hamilton is an Ellis County Master Gardener, a Texas Rainwater Harvesting Specialist and guest columnist in the Daily Light. For further information, contact the Ellis County Master Gardeners at the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, 701 South Interstate 35E, Suite 3, Waxahachie, or call 972-825-5175 or e-mail: ellis-tx@tamu.edu.