There are two major types of tarragon: French and Russian. The Russian tarragon is very hard and can be grown from seeds. However, it has less natural oil, less flavor and less medicinal value than the French type. It is rather bland and coarse in comparison to the French tarragon. The French type is the species that everyone tries to grow. It is much more aromatic and tender than the Russian variety. The leaves, when crushed, smell somewhat like anise seeds or a little like licorice. It is one of the most widely used species by chefs and cooks all over the world. For centuries, it has been a medicinal herb that everyone liked to cook with.
A few years ago, I gave a series of herb lectures in homes in a little Southern Utah town. The lady who hosted the lectures was very proud of her herb garden. The plants that she prized the most were the French tarragon. She said, “This herb is probably the hardest herb to grow that there is.” It has little globular blossoms that mostly don’t mature. Therefore, the plant must be grown from cuttings or by separation of roots in the spring and fall. Some folks say tarragon likes poor dry soil. However, for best results, plant in a warm, sunny environment in rich soil. Side dress or mulch each spring with compost manure. The plants will develop long, fibrous roots and lateral runners. These long runners will advance many volunteers, and your tarragon plant will grow into a large clump of shiny green plants. They say these long roots and runner “don’t like to get their feet wet,” so don’t water them too much. If the roots get water-logged, the plant will die. So, try to plant them on a slope.
Tarragon grows to the height of about three feet. It’s a tender plant with sparse, dark-green leaves on top that are long and thin and grow in threes. All the leaves are very aromatic. Tarragon is glabrous, which means there are no hairs on the plant. It is a perennial plant that likes dry, sunny areas. For best success in growing, separate the roots and replant every two or three years.
Tarragon comes from the genus Artemisia. This is the same family of plants as wormwood or sagebrush. This is where it gets its aromatic scent. It is said to have originated on the Southern plains of Siberia and on the Western plains of the United States. From this genus come the two species, Russian tarragon and French tarragon. The French species or dracunculus species was cultivated in southern Europe.
In France, tarragon is called esdragon or the “little dragon.” This comes from the Latin species dracunculus.
In the 700s, Charlemagne, the King of the Franks and the Holy Roman Emperor, ordered his gardeners to plant tarragon around his castle and on his estates. He wanted to have it handy wherever he traveled. He not only liked it in his food, but he gave bouquets of this favorite herb to visiting dignitaries, if he liked them.
For thousands of years, tarragon was a medicinal herb. The ancient herbalist, John Evelyn said, “This is highly cordial and a friend to the head, heart and liver.” It was first used by women who had menstrual problems. It was one of the first toothache medicines. The herb was packed around the tooth. It was used a mild laxative and aperients. Tarragon helped induce sleep. It was also used as a relief for stomachache, flatulence and colic.
Some old herbalists claimed it to be great for nervousness and anxiety, for rheumatism and gout. Some pilgrims put tarragon in their shoes to ease walking. It’s great in oil or vinegar. Get some, grow it, use it. You’ll be glad.