Is it summer yet? My friends at Log House Plants have put together a collection of plants based around the flavors in rum. They’re a wholesale nursery, so they’re growing the plants for sale at retail garden centers and gourmet grocery stores on the West Coast. Look for them in your local indie garden center/grocery store, or order them online from the Territorial Seed Company, who has joined in this effort and put together a great collection of cocktail-friendly plants and seeds.
Here’s what’s in our Old Havana Rum Garden collection:
Alpine strawberry ‘Golden Alexandria’
Mint x villosa ‘Cuban Mojito’ mint
Read on for recipes, growing tips, and a video:
The trick with strawberries is to plant them in a vertical planter or hanging basket so the berries are more or less suspended in the air, not turning to mush on the ground. I turned an old wooden medicine cabinet into a vertical planter last year by knocking out the mirror and replacing it with chicken wire, then drilling holes in the top, bottom, and back for drainage and air circulation. I placed it on its back and filled it with potting soil enriched with coco fiber. (Ask at the garden center for a potting soil with coco fiber designed for hanging baskets—it holds much more water, which you’ll want in a vertical planter.) With the chicken wire-framed door closed, I planted strawberries into the container, watered it, and let it get rooted for a couple of weeks before mounting it on a fence with L-brackets. Once it’s established, it just needs to be watered through holes drilled in the top or by gently spraying it head-on with the hose.
The strawberries to get are everbearing alpine strawberries, Fragaria vesca, which put out small, tart berries over a long season. (Actually, there are no bad strawberries to get. Try a bunch and you’ll figure out which ones you like best.) I particularly like ‘Golden Alexandria‘ for its lime green foliage, and ‘Tristan Day’ for its unusual pink flowers, or ‘Rainbow Treasure,’ with pink, white, and red flowers.. (The fruit’s not bad, either.)
They need at least 6 hours of sun and protection from hard frosts. Give them regular water and rich, organic compost. I feed all container plants with kelp meal and fish emulsion throughout the growing season; a little of that couldn’t hurt either.
Strawberry plants don’t live forever. Expect to get five years out of them, and that’s only if you renew them every spring by pulling off brown leaves, snipping back runners, and generally trimming the whole thing so that new vegetation sprouts from the crowns.
But once you’ve got a regular crop of strawberries going, cocktail hour takes care of itself. Smash them into rum, drop them in proseco—you get the idea.
Growing Tips and Cocktail Ideas: Mint
Indispensable in mojitos and juleps, and generally useful in any drink that combines fruit and alcohol, mint adds a little botanical complexity to what can otherwise taste like a juice box for adults.
Look for spearmint, not peppermint or any other kind of mint. Grab ‘Kentucky Colonel’ if you can; it produces large, fragrant leaves and isn’t quite as invasive as other mints. Keep it in a pot against the house where it gets some protection from frost and you’ll probably have mint all year long. ‘Mojito Mint’ is another good variety to try–according to the catalog copy, it comes to us courtesy of tourists visiting Cuba who had the courage to pluck a sprig of mint from their drinks and bring it home. That’s right, it’s the authentic Cuban cultivar, only recently cultivated for sale in the nursery trade. You can get it from Territorial.
To keep it from spreading, grow it in a pot (you can bury the pot in the ground, leaving 2-3 inches of the rim aboveground, if you prefer), or plant it in one of those small areas hemmed in by concrete on all sides that everybody seems to have around their house somewhere. Give it regular water, and cut off an entire stalk, not individual leaves, when you’re ready to use it. If, after a few years, the mint starts to seem tough and bitter, dump the whole thing out of the pot, extract a few young side shoots, and re-pot just those shoots. The new plant will be sweet and tender again.
Growing Tips and Cocktail Ideas: Lemongrass
It’s easy enough to start a lemongrass plant: get one from the garden center or get one here, or buy fresh stalks in the produce section, set them in a glass of water, and wait a few weeks for them to take root. Give the plant rich soil amended with plenty of compost, a good granular, balanced organic fertilizer, full sun, and as much heat as you can provide. Plan on watering it with a nitrogen fertilizer every few weeks throughout the growing season. (I use a mixture of fish emulsion and kelp meal.)
You can also grow lemongrass in a container, which makes it easier to shelter in the winter. The plants do well in a greenhouse but aren’t suitable as houseplants because they won’t get enough light indoors, even in a sunny window.
If you are lucky enough to have a healthy plant growing in the ground, dig out a 6 inch chunk of roots and stalks before winter comes and bring it indoors in a pot. It will stay fairly dormant, but it will get through the winter and you can plant it outside again in the late spring.
Harvest lemongrass by reaching down to the base of the stalk and giving it a firm twist and pull. Muddle the tender stalks into rum, vodka, and gin drinks to give them a more interesting and complex citrus flavor.
Lemongrass Express: 1.5 oz rum, juice of ¼ lemon, dash of Combier, .5 oz lemongrass simple syrup (heat equal parts sugar & water, add stalks of fresh lemongrass. Steep for one hour & strain). Shake over ice, strain & serve.
Growing Tips and Cocktail Ideas: Lemon verbena
Not lemon balm or lemon mint. Lemon verbena. This is a little woody shrub that only barely tolerates our chilly maritime winter, but if you can nurse it through one winter, you’re set. I love lemon verbena because it adds a bright citrus sparkle to drinks without making it overly acidic the way lemon juice does.
You’re looking for Aloysia citrodora, and you can probably find a small one in a four-inch pot at the garden center or farmer’s market. If you live inland and get warm summers, it’ll reach 6-8 feet after a couple of years. Give it some room or be prepared to cut it back every winter. It will also do fine in a large pot, and won’t object to whatever amount of clipping you impose upon it. Just be sure it gets plenty of sun, and be prepared to wrap it in a frost cloth, or even a sheet, in advance of a hard freeze its first winter. If it’s in a pot, just move it to a sheltered spot that doesn’t get hit by frost.
Muddle lemon verbena into any citrus-based cocktail, or cook up a simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, heated to a boil so the sugar melts and allowed to cool) with the leaves. It works as a garnish too, of course: the clever bartender trick would be to wipe the rim of the glass with a leaf, and then drop a fresh, pretty leaf into the glass.
And now for some recipes!
1.5 oz white rum
3-5 alpine strawberries
3-4 lemon verbena leaves
1 lemon wedge
Reserve one small strawberry or a slice for garnish. Squeeze lemon wedge into a cocktail shaker and add the other ingredients. Gently crush the berries and herbs with a muddler. Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a strawberry.
This is a twist on a recipe from The Drunken Botanist that celebrates the contributions of Amédée-François Frézier, who introduced Chilean strawberries to Europe. Crosses between the Chilean strawberries and European alpine strawberries led to the large, ripe, juicy berries we enjoy today. The yellow Chartreuse, a French herbal liqueur, is a nod to Frézier’s nationality, as is the more strongly lemon verbena-flavored Verviene.
1.5 oz white rum
.5 oz lemongrass simple syrup
3-4 sprigs ‘Mojito’ mint or another spearmint
1 stick lemongrass
4-6 oz club soda
Reserve one sprig of mint for garnish. Make simple syrup by heating equal parts sugar and water until the sugar melts, then add the lemongrass allow to cool and steep for one hour.
Combine rum, simple syrup, mint, and lemongrass in a cocktail shaker, then squeeze lime juice into shaker and drop the lime in. Using a muddler or a wooden spoon, gently crush all ingredients to release the flavors. Add ice and shake thoroughly, then strain into a glass of crushed ice. Top with club soda and garnish with mint.
1.5 oz white rum
.5 oz simple syrup
Strawberries, raspberries, or blueberries
½ lime, fresh-squeezed
Optional: Soda or sparkling wine
Reserve one mint sprig or berry for garnish. Squeeze lime into a cocktail shaker and add the other ingredients. Gently crush the berries and herbs with a muddler. Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Top with soda or sparkling wine if desired, then add garnish.
Watch a video about the Berry Patch cocktail: