2 feet high, 1-1/2 feet wide
Full sun to partial shade
Rich, light or sandy well-drained soil
|Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa
(Also called Dragon’s Mugwort, Tarragon) French Tarragon has become an herb not for the cook, but for the chef.
The word tarragon probably comes from the Arabic tarkhun. Its similarity to the Greek word drakoneion, little dragon, has given rise to its reputation as “the dragon herb.” Nibbling on the fresh herb does cause the tongue to feel slightly numb. Others point to its coiled, serpentlike roots as the source of this herb’s beastly identity.
French tarragon is often confused with its Russian cousin, A. dracunculus sub. Dracunculoides. The true French green offers a sensory satisfaction of anise and vanilla. In the garden, it appears as a tidy perennial, with erect stems draped by slender, smooth, dark green leaves. Russian tarragon, by contrast, has little flavor, it leaves are larger, and its growth is more coarse.
Planting and Care:
French tarragon can be tricky to grow. It rarely blooms and never sets seed. If you see seed for “tarragon,” it is probably the weedy, tasteless Russian version, which will attempt to take over your garden. The culinary tarragon is propagated entirely from root or stem cuttings. Treat a new plant as you would an asparagus crown, planting it in fairly rich, well drained soil. I have found adding fine gravel to the soil helps the plant maintain good drainage. Tarragon tolerates partial shade but prefers full sun. If you live in a hot, humid climate, try growing tarragon in a sphagnum lined basket that can be moved to a cooler spot in the summer heat. If that doesn’t work, consider growing Mexican Mint Marigold, Tagetes lucida, as a flavorful substitute.
As tarragon matures, the roots of tarragon grow inward, twisting tighter, strangling the plant and its quality consequently deteriorates. It is best to dig the “little dragon” up every third Spring, divide the roots and reset them. This will ensure a garden of healthy, abundant and more flavorful tarragon.
Winter warning: In areas where the temperature dips well below freezing and there is no insulating snow cover, provide tarragon plants with a blanket of winter mulch (hay, loose straw, of pine boughs). This protects its shallow root system from repeated freezing and thawing.
Harvesting and Use:
Harvest sparingly the first year, but after plants are established leaves may be used fresh anytime. The plant can be completely cut back if needed twice during the season. Wrap fresh sprigs in paper towels, seal in a plastic bag and refrigerate up to one week. Fresh is best, but when you must use the dried leaf, substitute one third the amount. Tarragon marries well with sweet basil, oregano, thyme, garlic, parsley, chervil and chives – the classic French blend, fines herbes.
On its own, tarragon’s pronounced flavor dresses up chicken, veal and seafood, as well as cheese and egg dishes. It does not go well with strongly flavored vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower, nor does it add much to baking sweets, pastas or tea. Better choices are spinach, salad greens, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, or zucchini. Because of tarragon’s high essential oil content, use sparingly. Add it at the last moment of cooking. Otherwise its potency tends to cook out or it becomes bitter.
Tarragon is delicious preserved in white wine vinegar or extra virgin olive oil. It makes an excellent mustard, and one of the best herb butters. Excellent as a salt substitute.
Charlemagne, a French King in the eighth century, liked the flavor of tarragon so much that he ordered it planted on all of his estates. Later it became popular in England and was listed as a garden plant in the Dutch settlements in North America in 1650. Thomas Jefferson grew tarragon and shared his plants with friends.