French tarragon: culinary hero

French tarragon
French tarragon

French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’) is not often seen on lists of “essential” home herb garden plants, but it is certainly on mine.  It’s a perennial herb that grows in temperate zones (2-9), prefers well drained soils, is drought tolerant and does fine in part shade in hotter climates.  Like most herbs, it’s a tough plant but this one isn’t a thug.  It doesn’t reseed itself – in fact, any seeds it produces are sterile — and it doesn’t spread by runners.  Eventually the plant expands outward, but it can be controlled by digging and dividing the roots every few years, and passing along to a new growing spot or another garden.

In the garden, it looks like a modest collection of branched stems with long thin leaves that looks a bit like it needs a haircut.  It has a delightful minty and anise-like smell which is invigorating and welcoming.  Plant it where you or your guests will walk by frequently to enjoy the aroma.

In the kitchen, however, tarragon is not modest at all.  One of the essential French herbs, tarragon pairs well with fish and chicken and is the flavoring in Béarnaise sauce.  It’s best used fresh.  Dried tarragon is a pale shadow of its green self but it is easy to dry and tuck into the cabinet for winter meals.  It makes a great herbed vinegar which can be canned for long-term preserving and used for salads, sauces and deviled eggs.  Or, collect and wash the leaves and freeze in ice cube trays with just enough water to cover them, then drain and defrost to use in recipes.

You can’t buy French Tarragon seeds.  It’s a sterile plant that must be propagated vegetatively.  If you see tarragon seeds, it is either for its tasteless/non-aromatic sibling Russian Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.) or Mexican Tarragon (Tagetes lucida), aka Spanish or Winter Tarragon, which isn’t related at all but is a marigold that smells and tastes similar to French Tarragon.  If you live in a hotter climate than French Tarragon can take, plant Mexican Tarragon which is perennial from about Zone 8b to 11.  If you can’t find French Tarragon plants at all or must rely on seeds, you can grow Mexican Tarragon as an annual in colder regions.