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Tarragon
(Artemisia dracunculus)


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About Tarragon

Tarragon plant

This is one of the truly great herbs (a dish of well-made scrambled eggs lightly laced with tarragon is a Divine gift). It is a perennial hardy enough for outdoor growing hereabouts (it is listed as hardy to Zone 5, but Zone 4 growers find it overwinters reliably), but--sheerly for convenience--we think it better grown indoors anyway.


Cultivars

While there is reportedly at least one named cultivar (Epicure, supposedly especially fragrant), in home-garden catalogues, tarragon is invariably offered as a generic. Most writers and seedsmen act as if they are initiating you into The Secrets of the Ancients to even tell you that French and Russian tarragons are different things--sort of like saying "don't mistake a daffodil for a rose". Well, so be it. The only thing one has left to do is be absolutely, positively sure one is getting true "French" tarragon, not the vastly inferior so-called "Russian tarragon", a completely different species, A. dracunculoides (though it is often erroneously referred to as a cultivar of tarragon).

Though all tarragon offerings are generic, it still pays to buy it from a reputable herb specialist, who will likely have the hardiest or most flavorful strains.

(There is also a completely unrelated plant, Tagetes lucida, commonly called "Mexican Tarragon" and actually a type of marigold, that is sometimes recommended as a substitute for those who cannot grow tarragon--whoever that might be--and is said to be a pretty decent, full-flavored herb, though not identical in taste to real French tarragon; still, the experimentally minded might want to try a plant of it for its own virtues and see what they think.)

Planting

French tarragon rarely if ever sets seed, and so must be grown from cuttings (if you are offered "tarragon seed", run away, because it will be the dreadful "Russian tarragon"). The plant can eventually get large--up to 2 feet across--so it wants a good-sized pot if grown indoors, and that pot needs especially to be deep, because the one thing that will kill off tarragon readily is "wet feet", to which it is very susceptible, so--in pot or in ground--its roots need plenty of room.

For that same reason, the soil it is grown in needs to be pretty sandy, so as to have the best possible drainage: clay soils are a very bad thing for growing tarragon. But the soil does not need, or even want, to be rich--for best leaf flavor, average fertility (or even less) is supposedly ideal. And when growing tarragon in a pot, put plenty of gravel at the bottom of the pot before adding the soil, to facilitate drainage.


Growing

Tarragon absolutely detests dampness--at its roots or on its foliage--which will kill it quickly. Besides putting it in sandy soil over a thick gravel layer (in a large pot) to begin with, keep the foliage well pruned, removing any dead or dying foliage at once and in general keeping the plant open to air movement, try to space it a little away from immediate contact with any other plant's foliage, and do not wet the foliage when watering tarragon. And, of course, water tarragon very sparingly.

Harvest tarragon as you need it, preferably literally--that is, when about to cook with it. Cut about a third of a branch, then chop the leaves quite fine, to fully release the flavoring oils. Tarragon makes an excellent flavored wine vinegar, and an excellent herb butter, alone or in combination with some other fines herbes.

Although no one explicitly says so, it's probably a good idea to renew tarragon every few years by starting a new cutting taken from a healthy plant.


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