By Peggy Riccio, HSA Member and author PegPlant.com
Tarragon is one of the new culinary herbs in my Virginia garden, and it took a couple of tries to find its happy place. I had grown tarragon in different locations, but plants never reappeared in spring. This time, the tarragon that I bought last year is leafing out in March with many, light green leaves. It must be happy with full sun exposure, in a slightly raised, well-drained area in front of the house.
A member of the Asteraceae (aster) or Compositae family, tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus, is cousin to the other artemisia plants: mugwort (A. vulgaris), wormwood (A. absinthium), and southernwood (A. abrotanum). The term “dracunculus” is considered a corruption of the French “estragon,” which means little dragon. This refers to the plant’s brown, coiled roots, similar to serpents.
I have French tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa, the preferred culinary variety. French tarragon has anise-flavored leaves (like licorice). An herbaceous perennial, tarragon has green, narrow thin leaves and woody stems. It dies back in the fall and is among the first to emerge in early spring, growing to about two feet high and wide in the summer. Hardy to zone 5 (although every reference book gives a different number), it is not a long-lived perennial and should be propagated every few years. I have never seen a flower but the seeds are sterile so the plant is propagated by division or stem cuttings. Because it produces sterile seed, do not be fooled into buying tarragon seed packets. They can’t possibly be the flavorful variety, sativa. More likely they are Russian tarragon seeds, Artemisia dracunculus, which has inferior flavor but can still be grown in the garden.
Tarragon is an old culinary herb that has been used for several thousand years in the Middle East and Europe. It is one of the few culinary herbs that has no significant medicinal use. When Thomas Jefferson was in France, he enjoyed the extensive use of tarragon in French cuisine. Assuming it was propagated by seed, he searched for the seed in the colonies and was not able to find it. Eventually Bernard McMahon sent him a shipment of roots. The first time Jefferson planted tarragon at Monticello it failed (so I don’t feel so bad) but he tried again in different locations until he too found tarragon’s happy place. He then distributed the plant to colleagues. In 1809, General John Mason wrote to him and said “has flourished well in the open air and will in spring afford plenty of slips.” Mason no doubt discovered that tarragon likes plenty of air circulation.
Interestingly, the flavor of tarragon varies depending on how it is used in the kitchen which is why it is so versatile. If I pick a leaf off the plant and chew it, there is a zingy, refreshing flavor like a Peppermint Patty commercial. It slightly numbs the tongue. If I cook with it, the flavor becomes mellow and zingy like black pepper.
Tarragon leaves are used in sauces, vinegars, fish, chicken, spring vegetables, eggs, salads, cheese, cold potato dishes, and fruit such as peaches, melon, apricots and cherries. It is the ingredient in fines herbes and béarnaise sauce. Because of its delicate flavor, it is best to use fresh leaves and to add towards the end of the cooking period so they do not become bitter and overcooked. Because the leaves do not retain their flavor when dry, many people preserve tarragon in a vinegar, which can also be used as vinegar for salad dressings.
Peggy Riccio is a member of the Potomac Unit of HSA. Peggy publishes a free monthly newsletter, Pegplant’s Post, which features local gardening events, new books, articles, tips, and a giveaway. Visit her website, pegplant.com.