Tarragon is a delightful herb to grow, one that has long been used as a flavoring as well as a traditional curative.
With an appealing flavor reminiscent of anise and licorice, it has several wonderful culinary applications. And it makes an attractive border plant thanks to the visual appeal of its upright growth, delicate leaves, and sweet licorice-like fragrance.
From the sunflower family, true or French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is also known as estragon.
This plant is a perennial with the distinctive characteristics of the Artemisia clan – fragrant when handled, with thin, lance-shaped leaves and a hint of silver in the light green foliage that makes them distinctive in garden beds.
There are also two other well-known varieties – Russian or false tarragon, and Mexican mint tarragon.
The Russian variety has more limited culinary uses because its flavor is generally considered to be inferior. The Mexican type actually belongs to the marigold clan, but makes an excellent substitute in areas too hot for growing the French variety.
Let’s look at their planting and growth requirements, propagation, and how to care for this essential kitchen herb.
Not too surprisingly, the French variety is a staple in French cooking, and herb combinations such as fines herbes.
It’s used extensively in egg dishes, with fish and poultry, and as a counterpoint flavor to tomatoes. It’s also a natural in vinaigrettes, flavored vinegars, vinegar shrubs, salad dressings, compound butters, for flavoring herb crusts, and in beverages.
A. dracunculus, or “little dragon,” is native to the temperate regions of Europe and Northern Eurasia. Hardy to Zone 4B, this perennial goes into dormancy in winter but is one of the earliest herbs to send up new growth in the spring, and thrives in cool, early season temperatures.
For a steady supply of fresh leaves, estragon is very easy to grow. It requires only well-drained soil, a sunny spot, regular watering, and the occasional sip of a water-soluble fertilizer.
However, it does sag in vitality in prolonged, extreme heat, which makes the Mexican type a better growing choice for those areas with very hot summers. (More on the Mexican variety below.)
The French variety is well suited for growth in pots for the kitchen herb garden, and can also be planted directly in the ground.
Its root structure is composed of twisting, serpentine runners (hence the nickname “little dragon”) that spread readily and rapidly in the garden.
Due to its robust root spread, you may want to give it a dedicated spot of its own.
Or, you can restrict the roots by planting in a large pot and sinking the container into the ground. The ones that shrubs and small trees come in from the nursery are ideal for this.
Select a location that receives plenty of sunshine with good drainage, and prepare the planting hole.
Remove the soil in an area slightly deeper than the root ball (by just a couple of inches), and twice as wide. Amend the soil with plenty of organic material like mature compost or well-rotted manure, some liquid-retaining material like perlite or peat moss, and a couple of tablespoons of bone meal.
Set the root ball in place, fill in the hole, and cover the crown with the amended soil, then firm in place. Water gently to settle.
For pots, select a size two to three inches larger than the root ball. Place a layer of drainage material on the bottom, set the root ball in place, and cover with the amended soil mix mentioned above.
Tarragon doesn’t require a lot of fertilizer, but it will benefit from one or two applications of fish fertilizer during the growing season.
Once the summer recedes and cold weather sets in, the plant will die back and go dormant. After the leaves are gone, cut back the stems to three inches.
Reliably hardy to Zone 5, they will survive to Zone 4B if provided with a sheltered spot and a thick, dry winter mulch to protect the crown.
In late winter, cut back any remaining stems to one inch, and top-dress with organic material such as well-rotted manure or compost.
Potted plants will become root bound after a couple of years’ growth and will need to be divided and replanted – every two to three years, depending on the size of the pot.
But it’s best to re-pot earlier rather than later, as root-bound plants tend to lose a bit of flavor.
For the French variety, propagation must come from root division or stem cuttings, as the seeds are sterile – which means they’re not viable for planting.
Root division should be performed in late winter by cutting the root ball into halves, thirds, or quarters before new growth emerges. Plant the new divisions into containers with fresh soil or directly in the ground.
Stem divisions can be taken in late spring or early summer, or once the base of the stems has toughened.
Cut the stem back to about six inches, and dip into a rooting hormone. Plant a few stems per pot in a light, sandy potting mix and place in an area where it will get regular water with early morning sun or dappled sunlight – but not direct, hot afternoon sun.
Leaves can be harvested as soon as the shoots are about six inches tall. In this young, tender stage, pinch out the top set of leaves. This will also encourage branching, resulting in a bushier plant overall.
As it grows in height, harvest by cutting the stem back to about five or six inches to force new growth, then strip the leaves from the cut stem.
In mid-June when they’ve reached a mature height, cut back all stems to a height of four to six inches for a new flush of tender growth.
Got a big harvest? You can freeze or dry any surplus.
Fresh stems can be kept in the fridge in a small glass of water, or wrapped in a damp paper towel and placed in a plastic bag or storage container.
For long-term storage, freezing offers better flavor retention than drying. Estragon can be kept in the freezer for four to six months.
Freeze rinsed and dried stems on a cookie sheet, then transfer to a storage container and remove excess air.
Or, strip the leaves by pulling the stem from top to bottom between your thumb and forefinger, then pack in a one-inch layer into a freezer bag. Squeeze out the excess air and freeze.
To dry tarragon, hang bunched stems upside down in a cool, shady spot until completely dry. When dry, crumble the leaves into a paper bag or onto a sheet of wax paper, then transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid. Use within 30 days.
For Good Health
Tarragon has a substantial nutritional profile with minerals, vitamins A, B, and C, and flavonoids.
And because of its high concentrations of eugenol, it has long been used as an aid to help numb the pain of toothache.
Holistic applications include use as a digestive aid, and to stimulate the appetite.
You can learn more about its nutritional values, and get some culinary ideas in this article on Foodal.com.
The Russian variety, A. dracuncoloides pursch, is very similar in shape and appearance to French tarragon. However, its use in the kitchen is limited due to its bitter taste and musty aroma – although it is used in some regions to flavor soft drinks, cider, and tobacco.
Known as “false” tarragon, it’s from the same genus and is a very vigorous grower. Unlike its French cousin, it is easily grown from seed.
Unfortunately, this leads some dodgy growers to palm off the Russian variety as true tarragon in nursery sales.
With the French variety, the leaves are glossier and less hairy. But unless you can compare the two side by side, it’s difficult to distinguish any visual differences between them.
If you’re unsure what your nursery is offering, lightly bruise a couple of mature leaves. If the licorice fragrance is distinct, it’s probably French.
Or do the nibble test. Nibble a leaf between your front teeth – the true variety will be sweet and clean tasting like anise, and will leave the tip of your tongue tingling.
And of course, if the plant’s sticker says it’s grown from seed, you have confirmation that it’s the Russian variety.
If you do choose the Russian variety, planting and growth requirements are the same as for French. Hardy to Zone 4, propagation is easiest from seed, which can be collected in late summer and sown in early spring.
Mexican mint tarragon, Tagetes lucida, is a perennial native to Mexico and Guatemala and also grows from seed, with germination and growth habits similar to marigolds.
Hardy only to Zone 9, the foliage has a distinct, rich licorice flavor very similar to true tarragon – which makes it well-suited as a culinary substitute in regions with intense summer heat.
Sometimes called Texas or winter tarragon, it needs well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine to develop full flavors, but will grow in partial shade.
It can’t tolerate soggy, wet conditions – but the soil shouldn’t be allowed to completely dry out either. Water regularly but lightly, and apply a fish fertilizer sparingly.
By late summer, this pretty plant will blossom with multiple bright yellow marigold flowers, making it a cheerful fall flower in borders and pots as well as in the herb garden. Its flowers make it a welcoming plant for pollinators such as butterflies and bees, and songbirds also enjoy the seed.
After blooming, leave some seedheads in place. The Mexican variety will often self-sow for new seedlings in the spring (and winter birds will appreciate the food source). Seeds can also be collected in late autumn for planting the next spring.
Plant seeds into small pots with light, sandy soil and place in an area with light shade – germination will take place within two weeks. Once the seedlings are four to six inches in height they can be planted directly into the garden.
This perennial will die back in winter, and if touched with frost, the leaves will disappear. But new growth readily reappears with the return of warm days.
True, False, or Mexican?
Regardless of the variety you choose, tarragon is a lovely addition to garden beds and kitchen herb gardens.
Remember to choose the variety best suited for your hardiness zone. And if you plan to use it in the kitchen, ensure you’re getting the French variety for growth in temperate zones, or try the Mexican type if you have very hot summers.
Give them some sun, water, and just a touch of fertilizer. Divide root-bound plants every two or three years to enjoy its sweet flavor, delicate fragrance, and pleasant form.
Any questions or thoughts about estragon you’d like to add? Leave us a note in the comments below!
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Photos by Lorna Kring, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
The staff at Gardener’s Path are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Gardener’s Path and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet or using plant-based remedies or supplements for health and wellness.
About Lorna Kring
A writer, artist, and entrepreneur, Lorna is also a long-time gardener who got hooked on organic and natural gardening methods at an early age. These days, her vegetable garden is smaller to make room for decorative landscapes filled with color, fragrance, art, and hidden treasures. Cultivating and designing the ideal garden spot is one of her favorite activities – especially for gathering with family and friends for good times and good food (straight from the garden, of course)!