Zone Envy: Cocktail Plants I’d Grow if I Lived in SoCal

March 1, 2013 | By | Comments (9)

By Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist, out in March ’13.


Like most gardeners, I spend all my time thinking about the plants I wish I could grow, and very little time thinking about the ones I actually do grow. Lately I’ve become convinced that I need a tropical garden so that I can cultivate all of my favorite cocktail ingredients. The problem is that I’d have to move to Southern California to do it. A few of these would tolerate my coastal Pacific Northwest backyard, but they certainly wouldn’t thrive here.


dark sugarcane

Photo by ChapelHeel66

At the very top of my list is sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum). On a recent trip to Miami I ordered a mojito and it came with a swizzle stick-sized piece of sugarcane. I was entranced. Sugarcane is the one and only ingredient in rum and cachaça, but they are made differently: cachaça comes from freshly pressed, fermented sugarcane juice, while rum is made from molasses, the byproduct of heating sugarcane juice to crystallize the sugar.

I know I’ll never make my own rum or cachaça, but it turns out that heirloom sugarcane varieties are incredibly colorful and interesting. If I could grow it, I’d be haunting tropical plant nurseries in search of the burgundy ‘Pele’s Smoke,’ as well as a number of yellow and red-striped varieties.  Farmer’s markets and Asian markets sometimes sell cut lengths of fresh cane—as long as you have a couple of nodes intact, you can bury them under a couple inches of soil and they’ll probably sprout.

Chinotto sour orange

sour oranges

Photo by rltherichman

Next up would have to be chinotto sour orange, a citrus tree with tiny, beautiful dark leaves and fruit that tastes just like Campari.  Ever had San Pellegrino’s Chinotto Soda?   That’s the flavor.

San pellegrino

Photo by O.Thailon

If only I had enough fruit, I’d be making chinotto sidecars. You can buy a chinotto from Four Winds Growers.

Chinotto Sidecar

1.5 oz brandy

.75 oz fresh chinotto juice

.5 oz Combier or Cointreau (orange liqueur)

Angostura bitters

Shake the first three ingredients over ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and add a dash of bitters.

Next Friday: Three more picks from Amy, and how to use them (including a recipe for homemade grenadine). 


  1. Drunken Botanist author Amy Stewart’s writes her first crime novel | A blog by Sunset

    […] in Sunset‘s pages on topics ranging from the cut-flower industry to poisonous plants to botanical cocktails, all themes of her bestselling […]

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  5. eric

    @daisy…Not all rum is made from molasses.

    April 9, 2013 at 10:46 am
  6. Daisy

    Interesting– I had wondered what it was that made rum and cachaca different.
    And is there anything more pleasurably undignified than chewing on a sugar cane swizzle stick after you finish the drink? 🙂

    March 7, 2013 at 3:58 pm
  7. Zone Envy, Part II: Cocktail Plants for the SoCal Life – Westphoria | A blog by Sunset

    […] is Part Deux of last week’s ode to plants to grow with cocktail hour in mind. Amy Stewart, author of the Drunken Botanist, lives in the Northwest but dreams of raising these […]

    March 7, 2013 at 6:00 am
  8. marislunch

    I live in SoCal and now feel obligated to grow sugar cane!

    March 1, 2013 at 6:17 pm
  9. Jessica


    March 1, 2013 at 10:44 am

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