Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa
Height 60 to 120 cm; spread 30 to 45 cm.
Branching herb with smooth, shiny, dark-green, lobe-shaped leaves.
Artemisia dracunculus sativa (French tarragon, True tarragon) is the only variety worth growing: the flavour is distinctive, with a slight hint of anise—wonderful!
Grow from young plants purchased from a garden centre. French tarragon cannot be grown from seed.
How much: At least two plants.
When: Around the date of the date of average last spring frost.
Where: Full sun. Demands light, well-drained soil; cannot tolerate wet or poorly drained soil. Space plants at least 60 cm apart.
Care and Nurture
Tarragon requires some care to grow well. Water regularly to keep plant lush and full. Tarragon doesn’t require much fertilizer. Tarragon spreads, like mint, by underground runners, but is not nearly as invasive or hard to control. Tarragon tends to die back or get woody in the centre; it requires regular division and should be renewed every 3 or 4 years. Because tarragon is not completely hardy, it requires mulching in the fall for winter protection.
The leaves can be harvested from early spring until fall.
For best flavour: Choose tender growth; harvest only as much as you need immediately.
Leaves: Harvest individual leaves by clipping the leaf stalk where it attaches to the stem. Cut sprigs where they attach to the main growing stem; use whole or strip the leaves. Discard tough stalks or use on BBQ.
Flowers: Edible, but not normally eaten.
Preserving the Harvest
Tarragon is best used fresh, but can be preserved by freezing. Tarragon is also commonly preserved in white vinegar—tarragon vinegar is a typical gourmet product. Don’t bother drying tarragon: it loses its essential oils when dried.
- Never buy Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus dracunculoides)! Its flavour is poor—in fact, it’s almost tasteless. If you see tarragon seed for sale, it will definitely be the inferior Russian tarragon, so don’t buy it. The true French variety can only be propagated vegetatively.
- Tarragon prefers warm but not hot locations in full sun. I like to plant mine in a sunny location that is protected from the hot late-afternoon sun.
- Tarragon contains high amounts of calcium and potassium.
- Tarragon has been used to reduce swellings, alleviate toothaches, and to freshen breath.
- Tarragon is related to wormwood, southernwood, and mugwort.
- Hippocrates used tarragon to draw venom from snakebites.
- The Okanagan, Shuswap, Kootenay, and Blackfoot peoples all used tarragon as an insect-repelling smudge. Several tribes would bake tarragon leaves between two hot stones and eat the leaves with salt water.
- The Mongols and the Crusaders introduced tarragon into Europe.
- Tarragon gets its species name from a strange superstition recorded by Pliny, the famous Roman author and scientist. He wrote that anyone carrying a twig of the plant would be protected against snakes and dragons. The species came to be known as Dracunculus or “little dragon."