For the last year, I've been writing about plants that you can grow in a cocktail garden and use as flavorings and garnishes in drinks. We've run through the basics — flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables — and I've saved the best for last. Here are a few of the trickier and more obscure plants you might ever attempt to grow or drink.
Figs: I tend to think of figs as coming from enormous trees that you'd have to climb in order to harvest, but the fact is that you actually can grow a fig tree in a pot. The authors of Growing Tasty Tropical Plants recommend three varieties: Petite Negra, Chicago Hardy, and Black Mission. All three will grow to about 4 feet tall in a large container as long as they have full sun and aren't exposed to temperatures much below 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Plan on giving them a balanced organic fertilizer once every couple of weeks during the growing season, but don't feed them in the winter when they go dormant. Just give them some kind of winter shelter and prune them in February or March to maintain a nice shape.
How are you going to work figs into a cocktail? Try muddling a ripe fig into an old-fashioned or infusing fresh figs in vodka with a vanilla bean. And if you'd rather skip the growing process and just buy a bottle of the stuff, look for fig liqueurs like FigCello di Sonoma, made just down the road from us.
Citrus: Citrus trees are hardly obscure, but they are a bit tricky to grow in our climate. The most important thing you need to know about growing citrus for cocktails is that the rind is just as important as the juice. If you happen have a funky old citrus tree in your backyard and you believe its fruit to be inedible, you might be in luck. The peel might make fabulous limoncello or infused vodka. In fact, most of the great orange liqueurs like Curaçao come from Caribbean islands where Spaniards planted citrus trees. The trees produced nasty, inedible fruit, and someone figured out that the peels could be soaked in booze.
Most citrus trees can be grown in containers and brought indoors in the winter as long as indoor temperatures stay above about 50 degrees F. They need sandy soil that drains well. (The biggest problem with potted citrus is that the roots get waterlogged and rot.) Ask at your local garden center about varieties that will do well in your specific climate. Plant the tree in the ground if you can, and if you're going to grow it in a container, plan on bringing it indoors in winter to sit in a sunny window. Give it minimal water in winter to avoid the shock of cold, wet roots.
No matter how you grow them, you're going to want to use a fertilizer specially formulated for citrus trees about once a month throughout the growing season. Withhold fertilizer in the winter while the roots are coping with the stress of colder weather.
I like the diminutive myrtle-leaf orange, also called chinotto, which produces small, intense fruits the size of golf balls. Another interesting option is the calamondin, a sour orange fruit more similar to a lime than an orange, which happens to tolerate cold weather and life in a container better than most.
Fuchsia berries: Hey, you know that giant fuchsia you have growing in your garden? Did you know that the fruit is edible? It is! Some varieties taste better than others, so a little experimentation is in order. Fuchsia fruit enthusiasts (yes, such a community exists) favor the fruit of Fuchsia splendens, a Central American species that can tolerate light frost and might even survive a hard frost, although it will probably die back to the ground. In hot climates, this and most other fuchsias require some shade to keep them from getting scorched.
Even the less flavorful fuchsia berries can still go into a simple syrup, where they will release an astonishing purple color. Even if you get no fuchsia flavor at all, you will amaze your friends if you shake up fuchsia simple syrup, vodka, and an orange or elderflower liqueur and pour everyone a freakishly purple drink.
Rose hips: Rugosa roses are known for producing large orange and red hips (that's the fruit that contains the seeds) in the fall. The hips are rich in vitamin C and can be made into a liqueur. In fact, Koval Distillery in Chicago sells a rose hip liqueur. Make your own by harvesting fresh rose hips and cutting the woody ends off, then soaking in vodka for two or three months. Strain the vodka and mix with simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, heated until the sugar melts and then allowed to cool) until it's as sweet as you'd like it to be. Then let it sit for another couple of weeks, and it's ready to drink.
One bottle Everclear or vodka
12-15 fresh lemons or other citrus
3 cups sugar
3 cups water
Wash the fruit and peel just the thin outer zest of the fruit. Place in a bottle or jar with vodka for one week. Then heat the sugar and water, let cool, and add to the vodka and lemon mixture. After 24 hours, strain and refrigerate overnight before drinking. (If you don't have another use for the fruit, squeeze the juice into ice cube trays for later use.)