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, worm castings, 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.