Tarragon bears smooth, aromatic leaves with a distinctive mint-anise flavor that makes it popular for cooking, but this herb also has healing properties. Its name is a corruption of the French esdragon, derived from the Latin dracunculus (“little dragon”), which could allude either to the herb’s sharp taste, its reputation as a treatment for poisonous insect bites and stings, or its purported ability to kill intestinal parasites. Tarragon is native to southern Europe and Asia.
Common Names: Estragon, French Tarragon, Tarragon
Description: Upright stems 24 to 30 inches tall; smooth, undivided leaves 1 to 4 inches long; aromatic
Hardiness: To Zone 3
Flowering: Midsummer to late summer
Parts Used: Leaves
Range/Habitat:Native to southern Europe and Asia
Tarragon leaves, widely used in French cooking, enhance egg and chicken dishes, sauces, and salad dressings. The herb is a key ingredient in béarnaise sauce and is included in the popular French herb mix fines herbes. Use tarragon to flavor vinegars, oils, and butters.
Storage note: Tarragon does not hold its flavor when dried; freezing the leaves is a better option for long-term storage. Better yet, grow tarragon indoors throughout the winter to provide fresh leaves for cooking.
Like other culinary herbs, tarragon has antibacterial properties. The oil contains rutin, which strengthens blood vessel walls, as well as eugenol, which has anesthetic properties. Chewing the leaves can temporarily numb your tongue, an effect the ancient Greeks used to their advantage when treating toothaches.
Externally, you can apply the crushed leaves directly to your skin as an antiseptic to treat minor wounds. Tarragon also contains the chemical estragole—a carcinogen when given in large amounts to animals and a suspected genotoxin (harmful to DNA), but the plant also has anticarcinogenic compounds and is generally regarded as safe for culinary use.
Caution: Therapeutic doses of tarragon should not be taken by pregnant or nursing women, although it is safe to consume in small doses in food. Do not take the herb therapeutically for periods exceeding 4 weeks.
How to grow it
For cooking, be sure to buy Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’, not Russian tarragon (A. dracunculoides), which is less flavorful. Plant tarragon in rich, well-drained loam in full sun or partial shade. Begin harvesting leaves 6 to 8 weeks later. Pinch off any flowers to encourage lush leaf growth. Tarragon requires a period of winter dormancy for best growth. To grow it indoors during winter, pot a mature plant in summer, then cut it back to the base.
Wrap the pot in plastic and set it in a cool location (such as a refrigerator) until fall (2 to 3 months). Unwrap the pot and place it in a south-facing window to break dormancy and encourage sprouting. Harvest sprigs as needed throughout winter. To propagate tarragon, divide established plants in early spring, or take cuttings in late spring. Dividing the clumps every 2 to 3 years will help keep the plants vigorous and flavorful.