By Matt Gibson
Tarragon is a perennial herb that has been cultivated for culinary purposes dating back to 500 BC in Ancient Greece. Originally from Siberia, tarragon has been naturalized to temperate climates all throughout Asia, Europe, and the United States. In the 15th century, tarragon was introduced to France, where it became an instant sensation, and one of the most widely used spices in the region.
Growing one to three feet high, the tarragon shrub isn’t very ornamental. Multiple woody branches are decorated with green, glossy, thin, spear-shaped leaves with pointed tips and flat margins. In the summertime, tarragon plants begin to flower, producing yellowish-green blossoms atop each of the plant’s stems.
Tarragon’s flowers are actually composite blossoms. Each flowerhead is composed of over 40 different individual florets. Tarragon flowers do not produce usable seeds. If the flowers develop seeds at all, they will most likely be sterile, or incapable of germinating. Tarragon plants can only be propagated by root cuttings, rhizome sprouts, and stem division.
Tarragon can be consumed fresh or dried. It has a pungent, peppery bite and a sweet, licorice-like flavor. The herb is commonly used to flavor vinegar, and is an essential ingredient in dijon mustard. Fresh tarragon leaves are often tossed directly into salads, and fresh and even dried tarragon leaves are used to flavor various marinades, sauces and dishes made of fish, chicken, cheese, and eggs.
Aside from its culinary value, tarragon is also used traditionally in the folk medicine of various countries around the globe. It has been used to treat scurvy, insomnia, hyperactivity, loss of appetite, digestive issues, and arthritis pain. Eugenol is a substance that is made from tarragon which is used in dentistry for its anesthetic and antiseptic properties. In addition to its culinary use as a flavoring agent, tarragon leaves are also highly nutritious, providing a good source of vitamins A and C, as well as a long list of essential minerals, which includes iron, iodine, calcium, and manganese.
Varieties of Tarragon
True tarragon, the most popular variety of tarragon, is also commonly called French tarragon, a title which was most likely given due to how prominent a role tarragon has played in the history of the French cuisine. True, or French tarragon is also commonly referred to as estragon. French tarragon is a member of the sunflower family. This article focuses on growing French tarragon specifically.
Aside from True tarragon, two other popular varieties exist, False, or Russian tarragon, and Mexican Mint tarragon. False tarragon is less of a culinary staple than its counterpoint, and is said to have an inferior aroma and taste. The sprigs of Russian tarragon can be treated like asparagus, and are quite similar in texture and flavor. Mexican Mint tarragon, a member of the Marigold family, is a stellar substitution for French tarragon and is well suited for gardeners who live in climates which are too warm for growing French tarragon.
Growing Conditions for Tarragon
Hardy to USDA zones four through eight, tarragon should be planted in locations that receive full sunlight exposure. Give each plant plenty of space to grow, putting at least 18 to 24 inches of room between plants in your garden beds in order to provide ample air circulation. Giving your tarragon plants extra space will also help keep their quickly-spreading roots from crowding nearby plants in the same bed.
Ideally, tarragon should be provided with fertile, well-draining soil, but the hardy herb plants will adapt to poor, dry, or sandy soil mediums, as long as they are well-draining. The reason tarragon is adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions is due to its vigorous root system. Tarragon is tolerant of arid climates, and once plants are established, they do not require frequent watering, aside from during drought-like conditions. Tarragon is firmly hardy to zone five during the winter and, if provided with a sheltered location and a thick layer of mulch in place to protect the plant’s crown, the herb will likely survive in zone 4B as well.
How to Plant Tarragon
Start tarragon seeds indoors in or around April or prior to the last expected frost in your region. Sow four to six seeds in each pot using a nutrient-rich, consistently moist potting soil. To encourage fast germination, cover the seeds with just enough soil to hide the seeds and keep the pots in a low light environment at room temperature. Thin seedlings down to one plant per pot, keeping the healthiest-looking specimen from each container.
Move transplants outdoors into full sun locations once the temperatures have become fairly warm. Provide tarragon seedlings with a well-draining fertile soil medium, ideally a sandy soil base with a neutral pH between 6.5 and 7.5. To improve air circulation and give the herbs vigorous roots plenty of space, allow 18 to 24 inches between each plant in the garden bed.
Before transplanting, amend the soil with lots of organic materials, such as well-rotted manure, worm castings, or compost, as well as some medium that is designed to improve moisture retention, like peat moss or perlite, and last but not least, add in two even tablespoons of phosphorus-rich bone meal.
To transplant tarragon into your garden beds, dig a hole that is a couple of inches larger than the root ball and double the width. Ease the root ball into the hole and fill the hole back in around the root ball with newly amended soil. Gently pat the soil down around the root ball to pack it into place and water to help ease the plant’s transition and to get the soil to settle in around the base of the plant.
French tarragon is well-suited to container gardening due to its vigorously spreading root system. The roots of True tarragon are made up of rapidly spreading, twisted, zigzagging runners. Giving tarragon its own dedicated space allows its root system to expand freely without impeding on the territory of neighboring plants.
Tarragon can also be planted directly into the ground, though its roots will likely take over more than its fair share of earth. To restrict the roots of your tarragon plants without hurting the plants, you could plant it in a big pot and bury the pot into the soil. This method will give the roots of the tarragon plant ample room to spread within its own space, but will keep the roots from encroaching on the space occupied by other nearby plants.
Care for Tarragon
To provide a fertile soil for tarragon, beds should be amended as outlined above, with multiple mediums, including organic materials, water retention materials, and bone meal. Once established, tarragon does not need a lot of fertilization, but plants can greatly benefit from a couple of fish fertilizer treatments during the growing season.
During the winter, tarragon goes dormant and starts to die back. Cut the stems back to about three inches after the foliage dies off and cold weather begins. Near the end of winter, cut back all remaining stems to one inch and rejuvenate the soil with a top dressing of compost or manure.
Prune tarragon occasionally throughout the growing season to keep the plant from flowering, keeping the height around two feet. If tarragon plants are allowed to get taller than two feet, they are prone to falling over, damaging their stems in the process. In cold climate areas, mulch around your tarragon plants in late autumn as their roots will need some insulation to survive the winter. Cut back any browning leaves in the spring to encourage new healthy growth.
How to Propagate Tarragon
Create new plants from stem or root cuttings as needed and divide tarragon plants during either spring or fall once every three to four years. Dividing your tarragon plants will help keep them healthy and avoid overcrowding their roots. True tarragon cannot be propagated from seed, as the seeds the plant produces are sterile. If you purchase tarragon seed, it will be the Russian variety, which lacks the typical tarragon flavor.
For stem cuttings, take six to eight inch pieces and let them develop roots by placing them in moistened sand for four weeks during the summer. Dividing the roots of tarragon plants is challenging to say the least, as the serpentine root system is very hard to untangle. If you can’t get them to untangle, just slice through them with a spade and prune the roots back 2 inches. Then, replant the divisions in your beds and water well to help the new plants get established.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Tarragon
Though there are no serious issues concerning tarragon plants when it comes to pest infestations, overly wet or soggy soil, especially when drainage is an issue, is a concern for tarragon plants, which are susceptible to multiple disease problems related to overwatering, including downy mildew, powdery mildew, and root rot. Avoid overhead watering to keep leaves dry and fix any drainage issues that come to your attention immediately.
If you are growing in containers and your plants start to turn brown, cut the plant back and allow plenty of time for it to start recovering. It has likely just gone dormant, and will be ready to produce again when spring comes back around again.
How to Harvest Tarragon
As a perennial, French tarragon should be harvested right up until the last days of summer. However, be sure to stop harvesting the leaves at a minimum of one month before the season’s first frosts are set to occur. Once the stems grow to around six inches tall, you can start harvesting. To make sure that the leaves you are taking are retaining the best possible flavor, keep the top of the plant trimmed back during the peak of the season. This will also make your tarragon plants grow into more full and bushy specimens.
How to Store Tarragon
As is the case with most herbs, the leaves of the tarragon plant are best when used fresh from the plant. Keep fresh tarragon leaves stored in the fridge wrapped in a paper towel and stored in a plastic bag, where it should stay fresh for two to three weeks.
To dry tarragon for extended storage, hang stems in bunches facing upside down in a dark, dry location. To extend the storage of fresh leaves, place fresh tarragon sprigs into airtight containers and place them in the freezer. Dried tarragon will store for up to three years. Frozen tarragon should be used within one year.
With a delicate flavor that is similar to anise, licorice and mint, it is no wonder why tarragon has been a part of culinary traditions for thousands of years. Tarragon is a great companion plant in the garden, but it is also a great companion herb in the kitchen too. It pairs well with just about everything, enhancing the flavor of meat and vegetable dishes alike. Tarragon should be added to dishes near the end of the cooking process, as too much heat exposure causes the herb to become a bit bitter. Tarragon is a member of the herbal flavoring quartet known as fines herbs, along with chervil, chives, and parsley. These four herbs are commonly used together to flavor popular dishes from all over the world.