Tarragon is one of the fine herbs so beloved of French chefs. Its flavour is unique, reminiscent as it is of aniseed, with a hint of vanilla and pepper. On its own or with chives, parsley and chervil, it’s a favourite in the kitchen and an essential ingredient in Bearnaise sauce. It goes well with fish, poultry and vegetables but used to excess it can overpower the flavour of the food it’s meant to be enhancing, so use with care.
Originating from Asia it’s native to Siberia and Mongolia. A perennial herb, Artemisia dracunculus, it’s known in the Far East as ‘little dragon’ or ‘dragon herb’ possibly because of the snakelike roots or because of the hot oil found within the root system. It can grow to 90 cm (3′).
Tarragon, which contains vitamins A and C and iodine, isn’t used much in homeopathy today although it was once thought that its leaves would cure toothache and be an antidote to snake bites. Henry VII, in the reasons he gave for divorcing Katherine of Aragon, included ‘reckless use’ of the herb!
There are two sorts of tarragon is use today: French and Russian. French has a finer flavour and is most prized; Russian is hardier and easier to grow and propagate. French tarragon has narrow glossy leaves while the leaves of the Russian variety are narrower and spiky.
French tarragon is a tender perennial herb. It’s a member of the daisy family but rarely flowers in Britain, the result being no seeds. To grow it initially, you will need to buy a plant from a garden centre or horticulturalist. Follow their planting instructions. It can be grown in a container, where it will grow well, or in the garden. If kept in a pot it will need dividing every 2-4 years.
French tarragon needs to be looked after! It likes a sunny position and light, well-drained soil. Shelter it from cold winds and winter frosts, and water well in dry periods. Be aware though that French tarragon is prone to root rot if the soil is heavy or wet.
Keeping in a Pot
- Feed every 6 weeks during the growing season.
- Over winter keep the pot in a frost-free environment. Don’t let it dry out completely. In spring, repot and start watering again.
- Acclimatise it and leave it outside only after all danger of frost has passed.
It’s wise to propagate your plant before winter in case it doesn’t survive. Propagation is done either by dividing the roots or taking a cutting.
To Divide a Root
- Carefully pull a piece of root away from the main. Make sure it has a shoot with a dormant bud on it.
- Cut the root to about 10 cm and place in a well-drained rooting compost.
- Keep cool and do not over-water.
To Take a Cutting
- Look for a shoot about 10 cm long and remove it from the plant.
- Remove the lower leaves and trim to just below a leaf joint.
- Place in a pot in a mix of rooting compost and grit.
- Then make a mini-cloche. Bend thin pieces of wire over the pot and place a plastic bag over that.
- Keep out of direct sunlight.
- In 3-4 weeks rooting should have taken place and you can begin to acclimatise the plant to light and reduced humidity.
This may be less in favour than its French cousin but is it is a much more vigorous plant that prefers poor soils and can cope with a bit of neglect! It produces loads of leaves, which can be used for a mild flavour, and the plant divides easily. And it can be grown from seed!
To Grow from Seed
Best results are achieved by sowing the seeds in trays or pots containing a good compost suitable for seeding. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, they can be planted out or potted on.
Harvesting and Storing Tarragon
Sprigs can be harvested 7-10 weeks after planting and then throughout the summer. Wrap freshly-cut sprigs in damp kitchen towel and place in a plastic bag in which you’ve made some small holes. Store the bag in the fridge and the tarragon will stay fresh for 4-5 days.