1226 Artemisia dracunculusCommon Names: tarragon, estragon, French tarragon Family: Asteraceae (aster/daisy Family)
Tarragon is a perennial sub-shrub that grows in an erect, much branched clump that can reach up to 4 ft (120 c m) in height, although it usually is around 18-24 in (45-60 cm) tall. Tarragon spreads slowly on creeping rhizomes. The uniquely aromatic leaves for which tarragon is cultivated, are long (3-4 in; 8-10 cm), narrowly lance shaped and usually undivided. They have a mild, minty, anise-like scent. The insignificant yellowish white flowerheads are tiny (1/8 in; 3 mm across) and borne in loose, elongate clusters.
French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa) is the variety that is used as a culinary herb. It has a mild, somewhat anise like peppery flavor. French tarragon rarely flowers, and does not produce viable seed when it does. The wild form is called Russian tarragon (A. d. var. dracunculus), and is more vigorous and much hardier. It has a coarser flavor than the French variety and is rarely used as a flavoring herb.
Artemisia dracunculus comes originally from eastern and central Europe and Russia where it grows in steppe, scrub and dry fields. Russian tarragon (not the French variety) has become established in many areas outside its native range including almost all of North America except for the southeastern quarter.
Light: Tarragon does best in full sun. Moisture: Tarragon likes a dry soil. Water only when the soil becomes dry, and be sure the planting medium is very well drained. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 8. Propagation: French tarragon does not produce viable seed and must be propagated vegetatively, either from cuttings of the rhizotomous roots, or from stem cuttings. The Russia variety sets seed and can become weedy.
Tarragon usually is grown in the ground, but is happy to grow in a container or window box near the kitchen. Tarragon is apparently unpalatable to deer and rabbits, and withstands urban air pollution.
French tarragon is noted for the mild, tangy, peppery, anise like flavor of its leaves. (Some people, however, do not taste the similarity with anise at all.) It is said that tarragon makes a good replacement for salt for those who must limit their intake of it. Tarragon is one of the four fines herbes that are so important in French cuisine. (The others are chives, chervil and parsley.) These “fine” herbs are gentle on the palate, and used fresh with quiet foods like tomatoes, chicken, fish, lobster and egg dishes. Fines herbes differ from the strongly pungent herbs that go into a bouquet garni, made to release their flavors during long cooking. Tarragon is the main flavoring in Bearnaise sauce and several other French dressings and sauces. Tarragon vinegar (great on tomatoes) is made by steeping fresh, slightly bruised leaves in distilled white vinegar.
Tarragon contains chemicals that cause a numbing sensation and was once used to treat toothaches and to dull the mouth before ingesting bad tasting medicine. The leaves have been used as a diuretic, as a digestive aid, and to stimulate the appetite.
Leaves or whole sprigs of tarragon may be frozen in airtight bags or ice cubes. Tarragon also can be dried and stored in sealed airtight jars. For most spices and herbs, drying removes only the water, and leaves behind the chemical flavoring agents in a more concentrated form. Not so with tarragon. The essential oil that gives tarragon its distinctive flavor is very volatile and tends to evaporate when the leaves are dried. Although dried tarragon retains some of the flavor of fresh, you probably will want to use twice as much.
The experts tell us that French tarragon is a sterile chromosomal derivative of the wild Russian tarragon. It has 36 chromosomes whereas the naturally occurring Russian tarragon has 90.
Steve Christman 10/4/14