Know Your Tarragon – The Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

French tarragon in a potIt pays to pay attention to plant labels. Especially in the case of tarragon–especially if you are planning to use tarragon in your cooking. If you are growing tarragon for culinary purposes, be sure the label on the plant or seed that you buy says “French tarragon” or Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’, to be sure. If the label says only “tarragon,” you may be purchasing Russian tarragon, which is not the tarragon you want for your roast chicken or béarnaise sauce. 

Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for March. Read on for more information about the plants we call tarragon.

French tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’    

The botanical name for tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus, comes from the Latin word meaning “little dragon” or “snake.” It is thought that the plant was given this name because its roots resemble coiled snakes, and the leaves look like a dragon’s tongue. In very early days, this plant was indeed used to treat snake bites. 

French tarragon is famous for its distinctive, anise-like taste and smell. It is a classic culinary herb in French cooking and is one of the four fines herbes, chervil, parsley, and chives making up the other three. It is used in sauces such as béarnaise, remoulade, and tartar. Tarragon vinegar is great for making salad dressings, and French tarragon enhances the flavor of meats and fish.  

Bottles of dried French tarragon and fines herbesEarly medicinal uses of French tarragon include using the herb to combat fatigue. It is said that pilgrims in the Middle Ages put sprigs of tarragon in their shoes to keep them from getting tired on their journey (Kowalchik, 1988). Nicholas Culpeper, a seventeenth-century physician and herbalist, recommended it to treat urogenital conditions, as did Johann Dragendoff, a late-nineteenth-century German pharmacist and chemist (Engels, 2014). 

Native Americans use the wild species of the plant for tea. They treat a wide range of medical problems such as dysentery, colic, rheumatism, and eye and skin issues with it. It is also used to deter insects (Moerman, 1998).

Today, tarragon is used in the European and non-European cosmetology industry, where companies add it to moisturizers, shampoos, and lotions. The essential oil is used in some perfumes. Studies suggest that French tarragon has potential use as a food preservative (Ekiert, 2021).

In 2015, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for the discovery of the effectiveness of some properties of Artemisia annua in treating malaria. Since then, there has been renewed interest in researching the medicinal properties of A. dracunculus as well. The authors of a recent report say, “Contemporary research on the biological activity of the above-mentioned raw materials (leaves and essential oil of French tarragon) has proven new findings in their activity–antibacterial, antifungal, and antiprotozoal effects, as well as extremely valuable antioxidant, immunomodulatory and antineoplastic properties“ (Ekiert, 2021). So, something old is new again.

French tarragon grows in Europe and Asia and prefers the cooler areas of the United States. It needs a cold dormancy period to come back the next year and does not do well in the hot humid areas of the South. It needs fertile, well-draining soil and full sun and can grow to 2-3 feet high. It does not produce viable seeds, so must be propagated vegetatively with cuttings or by root division. Buyer beware when buying tarragon seeds. French tarragon does not produce seeds, so the seeds may be from the Russian tarragon plant, which looks similar but has a different taste.

Russian tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus (syn. dracunculoides)

Russian tarragonRussian tarragon is a French tarragon look-alike. Some people even call it an “imposter tarragon.” Its leaves are a lighter green, have a rougher feel, and do not have much flavor. Russian tarragon produces flowers and viable seeds and is easier to grow than French tarragon. It is considered a perennial in most locations. Early in my herb discovery days, I was fooled by this plant and thought I was buying French tarragon. I wondered why it did not have the anise flavor in its leaves.

Russian tarragon is native to southern and eastern Russia, parts of Asia, and western North America. It is used primarily as a medicinal herb in Russia and Middle Eastern countries to Herbal supplement with Russian tarragonstimulate the appetite, flush toxins from the body, and ease the pain of a toothache, sores, and cuts. Other traditional uses in Russia include as an aid to digestion, relief for nervous conditions, aiding the liver and renal function, and as an anti-bacterial, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory agent (Engels, 2014). Recent studies show that the anti-diabetic properties of an extract of Russian tarragon, when taken with body-building supplements, helps to create muscle mass without a need for a high intake of carbohydrates, and helps the body recover from strenuous exercise (Pischel, 2011). 

Mexican tarragon — Tagetes lucida

Also known as Texas tarragon, winter tarragon, and Mexican mint marigold, Mexican tarragon is not in the Artemisia genus at all. But its leaves have a flavor similar to French tarragon, so it can be used as a substitute for it. Its flowers and leaves can be used in salads or dried and ground to use in tea. The fresh leaves and flowers can also be infused in vinegar for use in salad dressings. The leaves were a flavoring in the cocoa-based Aztec drink chocolatl.

Mexican tarragon thrives in hot, humid weather and tolerates freezes and is not fussy about soil, making it an herb that is ideal for the South. This plant also produces bright yellow, daisy-like flowers in the fall that are a nice addition to the landscape. 

Mexican mint marigold in flowerMexican tarragon has been used in traditional Mexican medicine to treat gastrointestinal disorders, relieve mental stress or symptoms of a hangover, as well as for infections caused by parasites (Ventura-Martinez, 2020). Recent studies in the laboratory indicate that the use of Mexican tarragon to relieve some gastrointestinal problems may be an effective use of the herb.

Madalene Hill (1913-2009), noted Texas herbalist and past President of The Herb Society of America, is credited with introducing this South American herb to the United States. For those of us who like to cook with French tarragon and like a nice plant in our garden, we have Madalene to thank.

For more information about Artemisia dracunculus, please see The Herb Society of the Month webpage.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

Photo Credits: 1) French tarragon (Andrew Yeoman); 2) French tarragon and fines herbes (Maryann Readal); 3) Russian tarragon (https://laidbackgardener.blog/2017/04/27/french-tarragon-and-the-russian-impostor/); 4) Body-building supplement with Russian tarragon (Maryann Readal); 5) Mexican tarragon in flower (Maryann Readal).

References

Blackman, Vicki. 2014. Five easy herbs. Texas Gardener. 33(13):20-24. Available from: Ebscohost.

Ekiert, H. et al. 2021. Artemisia dracunculus (Tarragon): A review of its traditional uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology.  Frontiers in Pharmacology.  Accessed 2/7/21. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8076785/

Engels, G. and J. Brinckmann. 2014.  Artemisia dracunculus L. (Tarragon): A critical review of its traditional use, chemical composition, pharmacology, and safety. HerbalGram. 102. Accessed 1/30/22. Available from: https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/102/table-of-contents/hg102-herbpro/ 

Glenn, L. Russian tarragon. Accessed 2/1/22. Available from: https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbclip/herbclip-news/2013/russian-tarragon/

Hill, M. and G. Barclay. 1987. Southern Herb Growing. Fredericksburg, TX: Shearer Publ.

Kowalchik, C. and W. H. Hylton, eds. 1988. Rodale’s illustrated encyclopedia of herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Moerman, Daniel. 1998. Native American ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Mueller, C. The three tarragons: French, Russian, and Mexican. Accessed 1/29/22. Available from: https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/newsletters/hortupdate/2009/jan09/Tarragon.html

Pischel, I. et al. 2011. Potential application of Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.) in health and sports. Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition. 8 (Suppl 1):16. Accessed 2/3/22. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3238148/

Ventura-Martinez, R. et al. 2020. Study of antispasmodic and antidiarrheal activities of Tagetes lucida (Mexican Tarragon) in experimental models and its mechanism of action. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2020. Accessed 1/30/22. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/7140642

Yeoman, A. French tarragon. Accessed 1/29/22. Available from: https://www.finegardening.com/article/french-tarragon


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Get Warmed Up with “Fire Cider”

By Karen O’Brien

DSC06193At this time of year, people often investigate remedies for winter ailments, be it the flu, colds, or even just warming brews. Many herbalists make a version of a vinegar-based drink called “fire cider,”* guaranteed to warm you up and may just possibly help with warding off upper respiratory infections. I always have a batch brewing, as I don’t want to be caught without this when the winds blow and the winter descends.

Made with apple cider vinegar, this drink is sure to wake you up and wow your taste buds. DSC06194(Apple cider vinegar is made by adding yeast to apple juice, which breaks down the sugars into alcohol. Then, other bacteria are added to turn the alcohol into acetic acid. These bacteria are what’s referred to as the “mother.” Some brands of apple cider vinegar have had the “mother” filtered out for clarity; some brands retain it. The best kind of cider to use is one that has retained the “mother.”) I like it straight, but many add a spoonful of honey to “help the medicine go down.” You can add or subtract to the recipe as you see fit, or you can find many versions online. The typical ingredients are horseradish, garlic, onions, ginger, and hot pepper. I add turmeric to mine as I like the anti-inflammatory nature of that rhizome. Enjoy!

FIRE CIDER

DSC027331 large horseradish root, peeled

3 medium size fresh ginger rhizomes

5 – 6 fresh turmeric rhizomes

5 – 10 small hot peppers

2 small onions 

4 heads of garlic, peeled

Apple cider vinegar, enough to cover the ingredients, approximately 2 ½ quarts

Directions          

DSC01054Grate the horseradish in a food processor and place in a large bowl. Shred the turmeric, onions, garlic, ginger, and hot peppers and add to the bowl. Mix well. Place ingredients into two large (2-quart) canning jars and cover with apple cider vinegar. I used 2 1/2 quarts of vinegar with the “mother,” being sure I covered the shredded roots. If you don’t have the large jars, you can use any extra large wide-mouthed jar, or use several smaller ones. If using metal lids, be sure to place a layer of wax paper between the lid and jar, as vinegar will corrode the metal over time. Place in a dark place for 4-8 weeks, shake frequently, then strain and re-bottle. The strained fire cider will last several months in a cool place, but is best stored in the fridge. 

*There was a huge controversy in the herbal community some years ago when three herbalists were sued for marketing their own version of this herbal blend. A company had trademarked the term “fire cider” and went after these herbalists in order to protect their investment. After a long trial, it was determined that the words “fire cider” were, indeed, a generic term and could not be trademarked. See the following article on the herbalists’ fight in court: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/10/20/herbalists-defended-their-brew-court-they-won/r94hvWnBghLvdwsnw7W7JN/story.html

Further Reading: Gladstar, Rosemary. Fire Cider!: 101 Zesty Recipes for Health-Boosting Remedies Made with Apple Cider Vinegar. 2019. Storey Publishing, LLC.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the author.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Karen O’Brien is a Master Gardener and owner of  “The Green Woman’s Garden” (www.greenwomansgarden.com) in Richmond, New Hampshire. She lectures and presents workshops on all aspects of herbs and gardening. Karen is also the Northeast District Member Delegate for The Herb Society of America (HSA), was the Botany and Horticulture Chair of HSA, past Chair of The New England Unit of HSA, was past Secretary of the International Herb Association (IHA), and is Past President of the Greenleaf Garden Club of Milford, MA. She is the editor and contributing author to several Herb of the Year™ books, including Capsicum, Satureja, Artemisia, and Sambucus, produced by the IHA. Karen also writes a gardening column for the Richmond Rooster and is an alternate Agriculture Commission member for Richmond.

Make Herbal Vinegars

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

Homemade herbal vinegars have been in Melissa McClelland’s kitchen for as long as she can remember. Her mom, Lenore McClelland — a long-time member of the Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America — made them every year.

“While she may not have been the best cook on the face of the earth, she could make a mean vinaigrette,” laughs Melissa, a photo stylist who lives in Cleveland Heights and has turned her entire front yard into raised herb beds. Because of her mother Melissa has become quite the expert at infusing various vinegars, something she often gifts to friends.

Stevia-Tarragon-EnglishThyme-Marjoram

“I started out doing classic combinations like basil- or tarragon-infused white wine vinegar,” she says. “I love garlic so I always have a garlic vinegar on hand.”

20170704_100759 (2) “As I started doing them more I started thinking of the herb and spice mixtures that I love. I have a poultry seasoning combination that I love to do,” she says. “It’s great when making vinaigrette for a chicken salad. You have that built in flavor profile.” For poultry she uses 10 sprigs of thyme and four each of sage and rosemary per quart of white wine vinegar.

Another of her creations uses rinds from organic lemons and oranges with an herb or two.  Her favorite combinations include basil or thyme with orange. “They have been such useful combinations. It makes a nice base for marinating chicken or pork.”

“The newest I’m starting to experiment with is a Chinese five spice mix in rice wine vinegar to use in Chinese cooking,” says Melissa.  “I’m still working to get the ratios right.”

“Herbing” vinegar is relatively easy and has few health safety concerns, something Melissa appreciates.

She usually starts with a quart of vinegar – most often white wine or cider vinegar. She prefers organic cider vinegars for the health benefits. White vinegar, she says, can be harsh and red vinegars too strong.

“There are a couple of ways to make the herbal vinegar,” she say. “Some people pack the jars, strain then repackage with a decorate sprig. That gives them a super-saturated herbal flavor.”

“For me it’s been a balancing act. It’s easy when you love herbs and are enthusiastic to use too many. I like having it more subtle, I want to be able to use it freely.”

First, she sterilizes wide-mouth mason jars with boiling water. After placing herbs inside, she makes certain they’re fully immersed in vinegar. Then, she places the jar in a dark place for at least a week.  While she will strain and repackage for a gift, she may just leave the “pickled” herb in the jar for home use.

20161028_145833

Melissa keeps her home vinegars in a dark pantry. With vinegar’s preservative properties the infusions last a year and beyond.


When vinegars remain in mason jars with metal lids, the lids may rust. For gifting presentations consider Timbertops, eco-friendly bamboo storage lids for mason jars from masontops.com or their plastic lids or chalk tops. They make delightful presentations. Readers can get a 10 percent discount by entering the discount code HERBSOCIETY10. Discount expires August 11, 2017.