By Maryann Readal
It 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.
Early 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 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 stimulate 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 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).
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.