Friday, October 2, 2009

Herb of the Week - Tarragon

The herb of the week is Tarragon, (artemisia dracunculu) a low growing perennial with shiny,dark green leaves.

We planted Tarragon two years ago, and it grew well, but did not return in the spring. I had given up on it, so I was surprised to discover it growing in the garden again this spring. I'm not sure why it decided to be dormant for a season, but it was good to have it back. I hope it returns again next year.

There are two main types of Tarragon, French Tarragon and Russian Tarragon. Both are related to daisies and sunflowers. French Tarragon is the more flavorful of the two, while Russian Tarragon is easier to grow. We had French Tarragon growing in the garden, and then I got some Russian tarragon plants clearanced at a nursery for 20 cents this year, so now we have both.

French Tarragon cannot be started from seed, in fact on the rare occasion when it DOES seed, the seeds will in fact produce Russian Tarragon. It must be grown from a transplant and it is a sensitive plant that needs some extra TLC to keep it healthy. But it is a sweet flavorful herb, slightly reminiscent of anise, that goes well with eggs, fish, chicken and seafood.

Russian Tarragon is a hearty, stronger plant that grows taller and has a strong root system, but has a very weak flavor. It is more likely to produce flowers, and when it does they are a small yellow and black flower. Russian Tarragon is good in salads in the early summer, when the leaves are tender, and may be used as a garnish. Of course, you can use it in other dishes, but the flavor is very weak. It is believed to be an appetite stimulant, and although I have no reputable research to back that up, it is certainly something to keep in mind when adding it to any dish.

We grew both this year, and will probably keep both in the future, but if space ever becomes an issue we will definitely keep the French Tarragon and say goodbye to the Russian. I probably would have never bought it had I known what I was getting, and certainly not at full price, but now that it's there, it will be something we add to salads and use as a garnish.

Tarragon gets its' name from the French word esdrago, which came from the Latin word dracunculus (little dragon). In ancient times, Tarragon was believed to be not only a cure for snakebite but also a dragon repellent.

I am happy to report that we had both varieties in our garden this year and did not see a single dragon of any type all summer, so I think we can safely assume that it works. I'm not even sure we saw dragonflies. I wonder... Could that be the reason? Nahh...

Tarragon prefers full sun or partial shade, and does better in well drained soil. It is susceptible to powdery mildew and root rot, so should be planted in a location that has good air circulation, to avoid the powdery mildew, and good drainage, to prevent the root rot.

Plant after the danger of frost has passed, and for best results divide your plants every three or four years. Tarragon has a serpentine root system, that will curl in around itself. If not divided, this root system will form a ball and strangle the plant. If it has been two years or more since you divided your Tarragon, and it is looking a little wimpy this year, chances are it has become root bound. If you don't have room to divide it, at least break the roots up a little.

If you are growing it in a container, and yes, Tarragon will do very well in a container, make sure you loosen the roots up every year and shave some off every couple of years.

I would trim the root system in the spring, so the plant has all summer to recover, before there is a full bushy plant depending on the roots for water, but if you forget, then just like any herb, make sure that when you trim the roots, you also cut the top part of the plant back as well, to compensate.

Russian Tarragon will grown in almost any soil and any condition, but will grow best in the full sun and well drained soil mentioned above.

Tarragon can be harvested regularly through the spring and summer, by clipping the tips. This will produce a fuller and bushier plant. In the fall, you can cut off the entire plant 3-6 inches above the ground.

So, what do you do with Tarragon once you have picked it?

Tarragon, like most herbs, is best if enjoyed fresh, but may be frozen or dried. It is also "pickled". Tarragon makes a wonderful addition to any sweet or sweet and sour pickles, and Tarragon Vinegar is an essential ingredient if you want to be a true French Chef. On an interesting side note, Tarragon Vinegar is a vital ingredient to good dijon mustard.

Tarragon contains the same essential oil found in Anise, which gives it its' flavor and aroma. This oil is almost all lost when the plant is dried. Dried Tarragon, therefore does not taste like fresh Tarragon, and should not be substituted, but dried Tarragon is a very nice,sweet herb that goes well with fish or chicken. Don't let anyone tell you that it will lose its' flavor if you dry it, it will just change its' flavor.

If you are feeling really adventurous, In Russia and the surrounding areas they have a soft drink that is made out of Tarragon. (I wonder, do they use the Russian Variety, or the more flavorful French Variety?) The bright green drink is called Tarhun, which simply means Tarragon in Russian.

But for those of us who don't get that way very often, I wanted to find some more practical uses for Tarragon.

Years ago, when I was in my 20's I worked in a restaurant. This job was my first exposure to a lot of different foods. One such food was halibut.

When we cooked halibut, we would brush the frozen steaks with melted butter, then, while the butter was still liquid, before the cold made it hard, we would sprinkle on chicken base powder, and dried tarragon. Within a minute or so, the butter would harden. Then we would put them in a pan, cover them with lemon slices, cover the pan with foil and bake them.

I was always surprised at how the chicken base, the butter, the lemon and the tarragon combined to make the halibut taste just right.

So, this is a multi tasking tarragon idea. You can follow the instructions above for halibut or any other fish, or you can combine:
2 sticks melted butter,
1 t. chicken base,
1 T. dried tarragon
1 T. lemon juice

into a sauce that is good on fish, chicken and just about anything else you want to use it on.

I have been known to brush it on bread and toast it on the grill. Yum!

I had heard that Tarragon made excellent pickles, so I went looking for recipes. When I found this one, I was amazed at the simplicity. It was one of those "DUH!" moments, when I thought... "Why didn't I think of that?"

Tarragon Pickles
(I haven't tried them yet, but I intend to do so real soon. They are supposed to taste similar to a bread and butter pickle.

1 gallon jar dill pickles
3 cups Tarragon vinegar
3 cups sugar
Drain pickles and cut each into spears. Make the spears whatever size you like. Mix sugar and vinegar in small bowl until sugar is dissolved. Pour into pickle jar with the cut pickles and refrigerate for at least 12 hours. If you get a particularly sour batch of dill pickles and find the finished product isn't quite sweet enough, just add another half cup of sugar and give them a good shake!

And how do you get Tarragon Vinegar you ask? Well, I'm glad you asked that question.

Tarragon Vinegar

Start with

2 cups of French tarragon leaves, fresh and loosely packed
2 cups vinegar
Additional sprig tarragon for decoration

I'm told that you can use either white vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Both are good, but each has a distinctly different taste. I personally have only ever used white vinegar when I made herbed vinegar, but this is something to explore and experiment with in the future.

Bruise the tarragon leaves lightly to release the flavour.
Pack the leaves into a glass container.
heat the vinegar slightly, (not boiling) Pour the vinegar over the leaves in the container. (Make sure that all the leaves are completely submerged so they won't mold.)
Cover the container and leave in a dark cool place for 2—3 weeks. This will draw out the flavor of the tarragon into the vinegar.
Pour the strained vinegar into bottles. Add the sprig of Tarragon (one for each bottle) before pouring in the vinegar.
Screw on the lid. Label and date.

As always, the recipes I post are simply to get your mind working. I love to hear how everyone else uses herbs.

For a quick culinary summary, Tarragon is good with fish, pork, beef, poultry, game, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, and most mainstream vegetables. It also goes well with lemons and oranges. It can be used in cream sauces, herbed butters and vinegars, soups, sour creams, and yogurt.

And finally, give this recipe a try:

Chicken Salad with Tarragon

2 cups chopped, cooked chicken meat*
1/4 cup dried cranberries, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1-2 teaspoons dried tarragon
Salt and pepper to taste

Simply mix all the ingredients together and add salt and pepper to taste. This can be served over lettuce for a quick and simple salad, inside a hollowed out tomato, or on bread for a chicken salad sandwich.

Medicinally, besides treating dragon bites, Tarragon has been used, at times, as a digestive aid, a mild sedative, and as a heart disease prevention aid, to promote menstruation, fight fatigue and calm the nerves.

Tarragon also promotes the production of bile by the liver, which aids in digestion and helps to speed the process of eliminating toxic waste in the body. Tarragon tea can be made to aid in this process. While tarragon stimulates the digestion, it is reputed to be a mild sedative and Tarragon tea has been taken to aid sleep

The leaves and roots have a mild numbing affect in the mouth, when chewed, and it has been chewed to treat toothache or a mild sore throat.

At Tarragon Central , I learned, among other things, that Tarragon is a recognized herbal treatment for the following conditions and symptoms:

Upset stomach
Loss of appetite
Intestinal Worms
Anti-Bacterial properties for cuts

Tarragon Central gives the following instructions:

Tea for calming benefits: To prepare tarragon tea, take one cup boiling water and pour over one tablespoon tarragon and let stand for ten minutes, and drink. It is recommended to drink at least one cup of tarragon tea per day.
Tea for Parasites:Tarragon tea has been used in helping to remove parasites, take one quart of boiling water and one ounce of tarragon leaves, pour water over leaves and let stand for ten minutes, strain and drink two cups in the morning and refrigerate the remaining. It is recommended to drink at least four cups per day, once in the morning and in the evening.
Tea for insomnia, hyperactivity, depression, or nervous exhaustion. (or anything "jittery") 1 ½ tsp cut dried herb in 1 ¾ cups boiled water, steep 40 minutes, drink warm
Tea to aid Digestion: For digestion steep a handful of dried leaves in a jar with apple cider vinegar, stand 7 hours, strain and seal. Take 1 tbsp before each meal.

Or, to use Tarragon to treat the following maladies they offer these suggestions:

Hiccups: Chew a leaf to stop hiccups.

External use: inhalation: dried leaves in 2 to 3 cups of boiling water; inhale vapors for headache, depression, or insomnia.

Topical application: Apply crushed leaves to small cuts to help fight bacteria before washing and bandaging.

Toothache: try chewing a couple of fresh or dried leaves until it is a paste and hold with tongue against sore tooth or area for oral pain (adults only). It will numb the bothersome area.

Aside from the old European belief that Tarragon would repel dragons and could cure snakebite if eaten, or rubbed on the bite, Tarragon does not play a major role in herbs of folklore.

In magic, Tarragon is used as a banishing herb. Burn an incense made of dried tarragon, while you write the name of the person or thing you wish to banish on a piece of white paper. Then, burn the paper allowing the smoke to combine with that of the incense.

In Kitchen Magic, Tarragon is added to dishes to make a guest feel welcome and at ease.

A charm bag may include Tarragon, to inspire compassion, love, peace and nurturing or to bring the wearer good luck.

Personally, I will continue to grow Tarragon, and hope that my home remains free of dragons.

Once again, my herb of the week is linked to The Food Renegade's blog carnival,
Fight Back Friday where you can learn all about different approaches, philosophies and strategies regarding Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethnic food.


  1. Troy,
    I love all the recipes -that is definetly what I need!

  2. Thanks for the recipes Troy! I grow it, but it isn't my favorite herb. Maybe I just wasn't finding the right recipes for using it. Have to give yours a try!


  3. I LOVE tarragon! I planted one small plant 3 years ago, and it has really spread each year to become a nice patch of tarragon. I didn't know the roots needed attention though, so I'll be sure and do that next spring. I must have French, because it has never flowered, and thrives in the partially shaded spot I chose.

    I always use it in chicken and egg salad. It's great on roasted chicken, and to make broth. I also love it sprinkled on a crostini with goat cheese. YUM!

    Thanks for the medicinal info, and I think I'll try to make some vinegar now.

    Great post.

  4. When I bought my tarragon start, I was informed it was "Spanish Tarragon", but after reading your information, I'm betting it's actually Russian. I grow it for the yellow flowers. In fact, it's in flower right now. The bees seem to love it. I don't like the taste (smells like licorice).

    It spreads like crazy! I've divided it by the roots and given it away and still it grows.

  5. I like tarragon for certain things, but find I don't really use it that much. I'll have to try grown some next year and experiment with it. Thanks as always for all your research. linda

  6. I appreciate the comments everyone leaves. It makes me feel like somebody is actually reading my posts.

    motherhen68 brings up an interesting side note. Tagetes lucida, The plant commonly known as "Spanish Tarragon" is actually not Tarragon at all, but a variety of Marigold. It got it's name because it smells like anise, just like Tarragon does.

    Spanish Tarragon can be used in many recipes that call for Tarragon, but is a milder, sweeter herb, that lacks the gently "kick" of Tarragon.

    Beyond cooking, Spanish Tarragon does not have the same essential oils and components of French Tarragon, so medicinally, it would not be interchangeable.

    Thanks for bringing that up.

  7. In my native country (Ukraine) the Tarhun drink is popular too, but I had no idea what it is made from. Now I know :)
    I've heard about Tarragon before, but I've never actually seen it. Looks like it is easy to grow, so I plan to plant in my little garden. Thank you, Troy

  8. thank you! just recieved a french tarragon plant and am excited to watch it grow and begin using it.

    extra thanks for the planting info! very useful!