Time for Tarragon

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Herbs add flavor to your meals and are also more nutrient dense than fruits and vegetables, providing protection against disease and clearing toxins from your body
  • Tarragon is an aromatic herb, growing wild through most of North America; popular in French cooking, it has a flavor reminiscent of anise or licorice
  • The plant is hardy, easily grown indoors and outside, may be harvested throughout the growing season and is easily propagated through root division or stem cuttings
  • Tarragon reduces blood clotting, is rich in iron, zinc and magnesium, is a natural diuretic and may naturally reduce blood sugar; however, as it has an effect on the female reproductive system, it should not be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding

By Dr. Mercola

Herbs improve taste and add flavor to many meals, as well as increase the nutritional density in the foods you eat. Many herbs provide protection against diseases, can clear toxins from your body and may provide you with vitamins and minerals. Each time you add flavor with herbs or spices you are essentially upgrading your food without adding a single calorie.

Gram for gram, herbs rank even higher in antioxidant density than fruits and vegetables. They are often grown for culinary and medicinal purposes. Culinary herbs are typically derived from the green leafy part of the plant, while the medicinal herb can come from a shrub or other woody part of the plant. By contrast, spices are derived from seeds, bark, roots, fruit or other parts of the plant.

The tarragon plant is a perennial herb from the sunflower family and often grows wild across much of North America. The herb is popularly used in cooking and such a vital part of French cuisine it is one of the “Fines Herbes.” These herbs are four of the most commonly used in French cooking and include parsley, chervil and chives.1

History of Tarragon: The Little Dragon

The word tarragon is derived from the Latin word dracunculus meaning “little dragon.”2 Thought to be native to Siberia and Mongolia, the plant genus (Artemisia) comes from the Greek name Artemis, goddess of the moon. In Roman mythology the moon goddess is Diana, who was said to have given tarragon to a centaur.3

The word tarragon also has ties to French, referencing a little dragon. Much of the association with dragons is related to the serpentine shape of its roots. The active ingredients found in tarragon oil have been found effective for a variety of different ailments. The herb has been cultivated for nearly 600 years and thought to be brought to Italy by invading Mongols, who used it as a sleep aid and breath freshener.

Some historians believe Saint Catherine brought tarragon to France while visiting Pope Clement VI in the 14th century. However, she could not have done this as she was only 5 years old when Clement VI died.4 Other histories have tarragon arriving in France in the 1500s. If St. Catherine was the one who brought it to France, most likely it was after her visit to see Pope Gregory VI in 1376.5

After adoption by the French, this unique herb catapulted into culinary prominence. Although it is used sparingly in other cultures, in France, Germany, Poland and Denmark you'll find it used in salads and meats.6

Grow Tarragon at Home for Fresh Cooking All Year

Tarragon has a flavor reminiscent of anise and licorice. Gardeners find it makes an attractive border as the plant has an upright growth and delicate leaves. Tarragon is a perennial plant with thinly shaped leaves and a hint of silver in the light, making them distinctive in garden beds.7 Easy to grow in your garden, tarragon requires only well-drained soil, regular watering and plenty of sun. If you live in southern climates, the Mexican type may be a better choice as it will not lose flavor in extreme heat.

The French variety of tarragon is suited for growing in pots in your kitchen and can be planted directly in the ground. This means you can enjoy your herb year-round. The serpentine root system puts out little runners, spreading the plant rapidly through your garden. For this reason, you may want to have a dedicated spot for tarragon or restrict the root system by planting in a large pot and then sinking the container into the ground.8

The plants grow up to 3 feet tall, depending upon the type of tarragon. Most French tarragon plants flower a white, somewhat greenish globe, which are tiny and sometimes easy to miss. The flowers appear mid- to late summer, but are sterile and do not produce seeds.9 French tarragon is unusual as it spreads by rhizomes or cuttings, but not from seeds. When grown in your garden, clumps should be divided every three to four years so the plant maintains the characteristic aromatic flavor.

Russian tarragon plants can be propagated from seeds, but most gardeners grow the French variety as it is more aromatic and flavorful than the Russian variety.10 During winter months, cut the stems to ground level and mulch them for protection. Most tarragon plants are hardy up to 10 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.11 Or, if you are growing your tarragon in pots, they can be brought into your home and placed in a sunny window before the first frost.

Cultivate, Propagate and Harvest Your Garden

While growing your own herbs is a convenient way of having fresh ingredients whenever you need them, you also have the additional benefit of avoiding pesticides and other chemicals used in commercially grown plants. In the featured video, you’ll discover how easy it is to grow tarragon at home. Tarragon plants enjoy a soil pH level between 6.5 and 7.5 and spacing approximately 18 to 24 inches for adequate air circulation and good drainage. While the plants do have an active root system, the roots are relatively delicate.12

French tarragon plants only propagate through division or stem cuttings as seeds are rare. Root division can be done in the mid-spring as the new shoots break ground. These plants may be planted and kept outside while stem cuttings can be taken during the summer months and rooted indoors.13 Take care while dividing the roots to prevent damage, using a knife instead of a hoe or a shovel.

You may take cuttings from young stems in the early morning hours by cutting 4 to 8 inches just below a node. Remove the lower leaves and dip the end into a rooting hormone. Plant the cutting in moist potting soil and keep it consistently misted and in a sunny area. Once roots have formed, the plant can be transplanted into your garden after the danger of frost is past.

Take care not to over water the plants during the growing season and ensure you’re planting your French tarragon in an area that is partially shaded in the afternoon. Mulch around the base of the plant to discourage root rot and keep the moisture near the surface of your herb. Fertilize the soil at the time of planting with a rich compost. After this, there is no further need to add fertilizer. The plants can be pruned to maintain its shape and divided in the spring every two to three years to maintain health and flavor of the plant.14

There is no specific time during which you must harvest tarragon. You can begin using the leaves as soon as the plant has enough to sustain growth. Leave at least one-third of the leaves on the plant. As the leaves are very delicate, you'll want to use kitchen shears to cut them from the plant. Bruising the leaf releases oils and reduces the power it has in your cooking.15

The flavor of tarragon is strongest when it's fresh. However, if you've picked too much you can try storing it in a freezer bag in the freezer or placing it in a glass with water at the bottom. Another option is to wrap the base in a damp towel, place it in a plastic bag and then keep it in the refrigerator. For long-term storage, freezing the plant has better flavor retention than drying it.16

The Little Dragon Is Healthy and Tasty

Tarragon has a dense nutrient profile, containing vitamins A, B, C and flavonoids. The plant is also an excellent source of minerals, such as magnesium, zinc, iron and calcium.17 When eaten regularly, tarragon may help reduce the risk of blood clots, stroke and heart attack as it supports cardiovascular health. The plant may also slow blood clotting, which may increase the risk of bleeding if it's taken as a supplement.18

The plant is a natural diuretic and may help reduce water retention.19 Polyphenolic compounds and dietary fibers found in tarragon may help to lower blood sugars naturally in individuals who suffer from diabetes.20 The presence of iron helps in the production of red blood cells and the presence of zinc may help repair damage to your intestinal mucosa and support your immune system.

As the plant contains eugenol oil, tarragon has a numbing effect helping to reduce mouth and tooth pain. Consider drinking the tea or simply chewing on the leaves. Tarragon tea may also help with insomnia because of its calming effect and can help fight bad breath and reduce body odor.21

Uses of Tarragon Essential Oil at Home

Tarragon is useful in the kitchen and can also be made into an essential oil with aromatherapeutic properties. The aroma is like the fresh plant and has a slightly spicy taste. Aromatherapeutic properties include:22

Deodorizer

Tarragon essential oil has effective antimicrobial properties. When diluted and applied on your underarms, it can help prevent the development of bad odor.

Antirheumatic

Tarragon oil can help improve blood flow throughout your body and eliminate uric acid. This combination may reduce the risks of developing rheumatism and arthritis.

Circulatory

Improved blood flow helps increase the distribution of oxygen, nutrients and antioxidants in your body, stimulating optimal health.

Stimulant

Tarragon essential oil has a stimulating effect on your brain, nervous, digestive and endocrine systems, which helps support growth and improve your immune system.

Tarragon essential oil can be used in several different ways:

Massage: Mix two to four drops of tarragon essential oil with a carrier oil and massage it on your body to enjoy the therapeutic benefits.

Bathwater: Add the oil to your bathwater and soak to enjoy the effects.

Tooth pain: Mix one to two drops in a cup of warm water and gargle to help relieve toothaches or sore throat.23

Potential Side Effects of Tarragon and Tarragon Essential Oil

Before using tarragon essential oil, you must be aware of its potential side effects. It contains estragole, also known as methyl chavicol, which can be poisonous in high doses. As tarragon has an effect on the female reproductive system and has been used to treat menstrual problems, it should never be used during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.24

If you are sensitive to plants in the Asteraceae family, such as ragweed, daisies, chrysanthemums or marigolds, tarragon may produce an allergic reaction. And, as the plant is known to reduce clotting time, you should stop eating it prior to having surgery. Nevertheless, in controlled doses, the benefits can typically be enjoyed without any serious complications.

Consult with your doctor and pharmacist before using the oil to ensure there are no contraindications with any medications you take or underlying medical condition you may have.25 Do a skin patch test on your arm prior to use by placing a diluted drop on your skin to check for irritation or allergic reactions. Should any side effects occur, stop using the oil immediately.

Tips for Cooking With Tarragon

The Spruce offers several tips for cooking with tarragon.26 You'll find both fresh and dried tarragon at the grocery store but will notice when tarragon is dry, the oils dissipate and the flavor is much less intense. Tarragon may also be found at specialty markets and farmers markets.

  • To retain the most flavor, use your tarragon fresh or freeze it in whole sprigs in an airtight bag. Always use frozen tarragon within three to five months.
  • Heat will intensify the flavor of the herb.
  • Tarragon vinegar can easily be made at home by placing fresh sprigs into a sterilized bottle of distilled white vinegar. Continue steeping this until it suits your taste, sampling after several days. Once the desired strength is achieved, carefully remove the sprigs.
  • White vinegar can also be used to preserve fresh tarragon while stored in the refrigerator. Use preserve tarragon in sauces, butters or any recipe where fresh is not required.
  • Although the taste may be new, try using it in a baked potato, potato salad or egg dishes as an introduction to your palate. Tarragon works well with tomatoes and carrots as well and can be used on a grilled summer vegetables or green salad.