The French know a thing or two about food and flavor. One of their favorite ways to enhance foods is with tarragon, a species of perennial herb (Artemisia dracunculus L.) in the family Asteraceae, also called Compositae. One of the largest flowering plant families, Asteraceae includes common daisies, sunflowers, asters, chrysanthemums, marigolds, and artichokes.
Tarragon’s scientific name dracunculus stems from the Latin word draconem (nominative draco) meaning “dragon,” but more likely, a giant serpent. The English word tarragon is a corruption of the French word estragon or “little dragon.” Some think its name came about because of the plant’s coiled serpentine mass of roots or because the leaves were believed to resemble a serpent’s tongue.
Two popular species of tarragon in the Asteraceae family include French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) and Russian tarragon (A. dracunculoides). Both descend from the wild plant that is native to regions of Russia, including Siberia, and to Central Asia. A lesser-known wild tarragon grows in Western North America (A. dracunculoides Pursh) that is comparable to Russian tarragon. Cultivated tarragon was not widely found in Europe until the 16th century but now has a permanent place in the Western kitchen. Tarragon is sometimes mistaken for mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), also called dragon’s mugwort.
French tarragon, cultivar ‘Sativa’, may have traveled with German monks to France in the 15th century and grown in the royal gardens as a medicinal herb. Hailed as the “King of Herbs,” it is a superstar in the French kitchen and equally prized in American and English kitchens for its ability to elevate ordinary dishes into something special. French tarragon rarely blooms, and the seeds are not viable. It is propagated through root division and softwood cuttings. Two-inch lanceolate leaves are aromatic, glossy, and dark green with distinctive blended flavor notes of anise, licorice, and fennel. Don’t worry; even if you aren’t a licorice fan, you’ll love how this herb can enhance foods. Purchase labeled plants or obtain cuttings from a French tarragon enthusiast.
Russian tarragon or wild tarragon, A. dranculoides, is hardier than French tarragon with thinner leaves that are not as green or glossy. It grows easily and sets seeds, unlike the French cultivar, but lacks the superior sweet anise/licorice aroma and flavor. Tarragon seed packets are, in all probability, the Russian cultivar and will develop an abundance of flowers. A crushed leaf might smell grassy with a taste that is bland or perhaps slightly bitter. This species is invasive in the garden.
Russian tarragon is not lacking supporters. Along with the tarragon native to Western North America, scientific research indicates they may be of great medicinal value. Russian tarragon is the main flavoring agent in Tarhun, a popular, emerald green, carbonated Russian soft drink that was created by a Georgian pharmacist in 1887.
The leaves and flowers of another popular plant are a good substitute for tarragon. Mexican tarragon, Tagetes lucida, also called Mexican mint marigold or winter tarragon, has a pleasant aroma and a similar sweet anise/licorice flavor. It is abundant in Mexico and the American Southwest, where it is valued as a food flavoring and herbal medicine. It is symbolically used in “Day of the Dead” celebrations, which date back to the Aztecs. The brilliant golden flowers are a dazzling addition to any summer or fall garden. Mexican tarragon is lower maintenance than true tarragon, which can’t stand extremely hot weather and “wet feet!”
Tarragon is indispensable in French béarnaise sauce. Served with grilled steak, it’s a match made in heaven. French cooks stuff the leaves into the cavity of a chicken or under its skin before roasting to permeate the meat with flavor.
French chef Auguste Escoffier was the first to write about fines herbes of which tarragon is an essential ingredient blended with equal parts parsley, chervil, and chives. To preserve the delicate flavors, season foods near the end of the cooking/preparation times. Add to omelets, crepe batters, scrambled eggs, vinaigrettes, and delicate fish dishes. Note that long cooking can make fresh tarragon taste bitter.
Tarragon adds pizazz to vinegars, mustards, mayonnaise, butter, and pickles. The flavor shines in green goddess dressing, carrot orange soup, and cheese spreads. Add to sliced, fresh peaches; fresh vegetables; or any salad. Use tarragon syrup in cocktails, limeade, and fruity aguas frescas. In Slovenia, tarragon is rolled up in a traditional yeast dough for savory potica; when baked, the bread has a faint aniseed flavor. Tarragon is added to cold fish tapas in Spain and yogurt soups in Turkey. It is part of a Persian fresh herb and vegetable platter, sabzi khordan, that accompanies meals.
Fresh tarragon is available in supermarkets and farmers markets. Refrigerate sprigs in a damp paper towel inside a plastic bag; discard when it wilts and darkens. Tarragon can be frozen. The dried herb is better than fresh in recipes requiring long cooking. Substitute one part dried tarragon for three parts fresh.
In ancient folk medicine, tarragon cured digestive problems, joint pains, and also venomous snake and mad dog bites. We don’t know how well that turned out. Leaves were boiled for inhaling, used as leaf poultices, and brewed as a restorative tea. The 13th century Arab botanist Ibn al-Bayṭār suggested using it as a breath sweetener and sleep aid.
Modern studies report that tarragon’s essential oils have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal properties. It helps improve insulin sensitivity and the way the body uses glucose; studies are ongoing. It may be beneficial for reducing pain associated with conditions like osteoarthritis. One tablespoon or 2 grams of tarragon provides 7 percent of the RDI for manganese, a nutrient necessary for brain health. Tarragon also contains iron and potassium. These nutrient amounts aren’t sizeable, but health experts believe tarragon may still benefit one’s overall health.