Tarragon (Artemisia Dracunculus) is a super addition to any herb garden if your growing conditions permit. There are different types of tarragon, Russian, Mexican and French. It’s not a great looking plant, but it is hardy and a sophisticated addition to your kitchen herb garden.
Commonly grown to use as a herb because of its pepper-like, anise liquorice flavour, and also a frequent addition to flavoured butters and vinegars.
Tarragon is one of the herbs that is included in a sachet of French herbes fines. The mixture usually includes parsley, tarragon, chervil and chives, and you will find tarragon is used in many French dishes.
Surprisingly, tarragon is part of the sunflower family. It is commonly found across Europe and North America. It is winter hardy to USDA zone 4. The plant will go into dormancy during the winter months.
But despite this, it will quickly spring into growth as soon as the temperatures begin to rise and much earlier than many other herbs. If you are growing tarragon in a region colder than this, then you will need to cover with a mulch during the winter. Alternatively, you can grow the herb as an annual plant, rather than as a perennial.
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Varieties to Choose
For cooking, you need to choose French tarragon. This plant, Artemisia dracunculus is considered to be the true tarragon. French tarragon known as Estragon, has dainty long light green leaves.
The flowers are tiny and are yellowy white in color. The flavor of French tarragon has a distinctive anise or liquorice fragrance and taste. French tarragon is a herb considered as essential by French chefs in their kitchens.
The plant known as Russian tarragon does look a little similar, but has coarser, less elegant foliage and is far less flavorful. Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides) which can be grown from seed, is often considered as a weed. It is also sometimes known as false tarragon due to its inferior flavor. Russian tarragon can grow up to 5 feet tall.
More rare, but sometimes available is Mexican mint tarragon. This is not the same family as the other tarragons. Mexican tarragon is not a member of the sunflower family, but it belongs to the marigold family instead. It is sometimes known as Mexican Marigold Mint (Tagetes Lucida).
Mexican tarragon is a good choice if you cannot grow French tarragon because your growing conditions are too hot. Mexican tarragon should be planted in full sun, and will thrive in hot, dry conditions.
How to Grow Tarragon
It’s not possible to grow French tarragon from seed. This is because French tarragon doesn’t often flower. Any flowers that it does produce are sterile, and therefore it doesn’t set seed. So you either need to purchase seedlings, larger plants in pots, or obtain a plant by splitting a friend’s established tarragon plant in the fall.
If you start with seedlings, you should start them off indoors, and transplant them when the danger of frost has passed. By this time, the soil will have warmed up to give the plants a good start.
The plants need to be planted in well-drained and fertile soil. Tarragon doesn’t like to be disturbed.
So when you are transplanting your seedlings or planting established pot grown plants, you need to plant the tarragon at the same level as it is in its current pot. Remove the soil just a bit deeper than the root ball of the potted plant and about twice as wide.
Before planting, you can prepare the soil by mixing in either an all purpose fertilizer, or ideally some well rotted organic compost. Mixing in this well composted organic matter will help to aerate the soil, improve the drainage and of course enrich the soil enabling the plants to flourish.
You can also use worm castings or well rotted manure. Adding some liquid retaining material is also good, such as perlite together with couple of tablespoons of bone meal.
The plants should have plenty of room to grow on, so allow 2 to 3 feet between each plant. Once fully grown, a tarragon plant will cover about a foot of soil length, and grow to about 2 or 3 feet in height.
Once planted, cover the crown with the improved soil and firm around the plant well. Water gently to assist the settling in of the plant.
Tarragon is different from other herbs; it isn’t like other herbs such as oregano or mint which can quickly take over your garden. Tarragon will keep itself in check, partly because it doesn’t seed.
If you are growing tarragon in a herb garden, kitchen or raised bed, it’s a good idea if you can plant it with herbs that are similarly restrained. If you grow it with herbs that are rampant, you will be setting yourself up for a lot of weeding in order to stop your tarragon being choked out.
The growing conditions described are the optimum for the tarragon plants. Having said that, tarragon is a tolerant plant and will still grow reasonably well if planted out in poor soil.
Like many herbs, some growers actually prefer to grow tarragon in nutrient deficient soil, because its flavor will be stronger. They simply fertilize once, when first planted.
Because of its vigorous root system, tarragon is able to tolerate dry conditions and only in times of severe drought, will it be necessary to water regularly, but you will get even better results if your tarragon is well watered during the summer.
You should soak it well, but it should be allowed to dry out between waterings. This is much better for the plant than giving it frequent superficial watering.
How to Propagate French Tarragon
Because French tarragon doesn’t produce seed, and can’t be planted from seed, the only way to propagate it is by taking stem cuttings or by root division.
The botanical name for French tarragon (dranunculus) translates as little dragon because it has a root structure which is composed of entwined, snake-like runners. Or according to legend, it is so named because it used to be used to treat dragon bites!
If you decide to propagate by taking root cuttings, you need to take care not to damage the roots of the parent plant which are quite delicate and easily damaged.
The best way to do this is to take a knife and not use a hoe. Then you can separate the roots carefully and gently.
Your new herb plants will be collected in this way, up to about three from each existing plant. The best time to do this is during the spring, when the new shoots of the tarragon plants are just beginning to show.
Another option is to take cuttings from young stems early in the morning. Remove the lower third of the leaves from a four inch (10 cm) length of stem which you should have cut just below a node.
You can place these cuttings into hormone rooting powder before planting in a pot filled with warm potting compost. Either cover with a cloche, or mist regularly. Don’t plant the newly rooted cutting out until later in the spring, once all the dangers of frost have passed.
Tarragon is a good companion plant, and does well in a vegetable garden.
Aftercare of Tarragon
Since you don’t want the flowers, you will have to prune it regularly. This will also ensure that the plant doesn’t become top-heavy and fall over. Pruning or trimming the top of the plant will also encourage the plant to become bushier, and therefore more attractive.
If you have cold winters, you will need to mulch the plant in the Fall. This will protect the plant’s roots during the winter months.
Tarragon will die back as soon as the first frost falls and enter a period of winter dormancy; providing there isn’t a continued and prolonged period of frost days, the plant will come back the following spring.
Every two or three years, your tarragon plants should be divided. You should do this in the spring or fall. Division will keep them healthy. You can then propagate the plants from stem or root cuttings.
Pests and Diseases
There aren’t too many pest problems that trouble the tarragon grower. The plant attracts bees and butterflies.
If you notice yellow patches on the leaves of your tarragon plants, check the undersides of the leaves for signs of little cobwebs. If tiny webs are present and/or yellowing leaves, you probably have a problem with spider mites.
The yellow spots are caused by the spider mites biting the plant leaves and sucking out the sap from inside. To prove their presence, you will need a magnifying glass as they are extremely tiny. You should be able to get rid of the problem by spraying the leaves with water.
The main problems facing the tarragon grower are diseases such as rusts, mildews, and fungal disease. Fungal disease can attack the leaves or the stems.
Rust however is the main disease which troubles tarragon. Usually this is caused by the plant receiving too much water. If you can mulch your tarragon plants, then you can keep the water at the level of the soil’s surface and away from the roots of your plants.
If you don’t have anywhere suitable to grow tarragon in the ground, you can grow it in containers. Usually however if grown in pots, it will only last a couple of years.
Because of its vigorous root growth, after this time the plants will either need to be replaced or planted direct in the soil. If you don’t do this, you will find that the tarragon plants have become root bound and this will result in a loss of flavor. Any container you choose to use, needs to be of a good size in order to accommodate its roots.
Providing you care for your plants properly, you don’t need more than two or three. You should harvest them often, and carrying out this pruning will keep them lush and healthy.
Harvesting tarragon can take place more or less throughout the growing season, but the best time to harvest the tarragon is during the summer months. You can start to harvest the leaves from plants as young as six to eight weeks after you have transplanted the young plants.
If possible, harvest the tarragon early in the morning as this is when the plant will have the most flavor. It’s a good idea to make sure you use clippers to cut the stems so you don’t tear the plant tissue which can encourage disease. The leaves are rather delicate and can damage easily.
The best time to use tarragon is when it is fresh. If you can’t use it all straight away, freeze or dry the leaves. Freezing is the best method, because dried tarragon will lose its flavour relatively quickly.
French tarragon is an excellent accompaniment for meat, poultry and seafood. Known as the chef’s best friend, you can enjoy your crop in a multitude of ways.
Make the most of it either fresh, frozen or dried and with all sorts of egg, fish, butter or vinaigrette recipes. Tarragon is essential in an authentic sauce béarnaise.
You can also eat the tender leaves of French tarragon raw. They are quite tasty and related to the lettuce family so can be chopped and added to a salad.
As well as its valuable culinary input, tarragon, like many herbs, has medicinal and curative uses, some more definitive than others. The herb is packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It is said, but not proven, that the herb aids toothache, and pain associated with rheumatism and arthritis.
Reportedly, it also aids digestion. The oils in tarragon can trigger the formation of digestive fluids from beginning to end.
First, it promotes saliva production which acts as a hunger trigger. Like an aperitif, saliva encourages the appetite. Then it produces gastric juices, aiding digestion from the stomach to the intestines.
For hundreds of years, fresh tarragon leaves have been used as a home remedy for mouth and gum pain as well as relief from toothache. Even earlier, it is thought that the ancient Greeks used to masticate the tarragon leaves which resulted in numbing of the mouth.
Doctors used to give people tarragon if a particularly unpleasant medicine was to be given afterwards as it had the effect of temporarily numbing the tongue. It can be used as a mouthwash due to the numbing effect, antibacterial quality and refreshing flavor.
To make tarragon tea, you brew one tablespoon of fresh or frozen tarragon in boiling water. Leave to infuse for a minimum of five minutes. You can simply enjoy this as a pleasant drink.
If you prefer, you can also add some tarragon leaves to your daily drink of black or green tea. The liquorice taste from the tarragon complements perfectly with the flavor of the tea. It also provides you with digestive and relaxation benefits.
Tarragon tea is also used against intestinal worms, and the recommended amount for this treatment to to drink four cups of the tea a day. You can make up a large quantity of tarragon tea, and refrigerate it for use as and when you want.
Tarragon tea can also be used as an antispectic liquid, cooled and then poured over a cut or wound. This makes a natural disinfectant.
Due to its antibacterial components, research has also been undertaken to look at the effect of using an essential oil of tarragon on two common bacteria which cause food poisoning illness. These two bacteria were E Coli and Staphylococcus aureus.
Several diseases are the results of staphylococcus bacteria such as skin disorders, boils, rashes and food poisoning. E Coli commonly causes diarrhea, as well as urinary tract and respiratory infections.
So if the antibacterial effect of the essential oil of tarragon can kill these bacteria, it makes it an excellent choice of natural product.
Tests carried out by Researchgate.net for the Iranian Journal of Microbiology have been performed on cheese. The results showed that cheese treated with the oil received antibacterial effects compared to the untreated cheese (treated with a placebo).
From these results, scientists are now looking at the viability of using tarragon as a food preservative in foods such as cheese.
Tarragon is reputed to help improve insulin sensitivity, and therefore to possibly decrease blood sugar levels. In animals, tests have shown that tarragon extract lowered the blood glucose level by 20%.
Tests have also been undertaken looking at the effect of taking tarragon in people with low sugar tolerance. Although the sample was small, once again, the results seem to show that tarragon might improve insulin sensitivity, and the way in which the body metabolizes sugar.
The family of plants, Artemisia, which includes tarragon is used medicinally in people with poor sleep quality. Lack of quality sleep is linked to poor health such as diabetes and heart disease.
If you have any allergies, awaiting surgery, are pregnant or breastfeeding, always make sure that you have checked with your healthcare provider before you start taking tarragon.
On a final, positive note – why not substitute your normal deodorant for tarragon? The spicy fragrance of the tarragon can be used to slow down the growth of bacteria in the skin, which will keep body odor at bay!
Sally is a retired English lawyer who spent 20 years homesteading on the Welsh hillsides in the U.K.
Semi-retired, she moved to France 15 years ago, where she and her husband set about restoring a 14th century watermill which came with 5 hectares of woodland, riverbank, and pastureland.
Using the skills and experience gained in the U.K, they continue to enjoy working on their land, woods and water.