(Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa)
A somewhat tender aromatic perennial plant that grows 2' — 3' tall, though the stems tend to be floppy, giving the plant an unkempt appearance. The leaves are linear, entire, and 1" — 4" long. The flowers are tiny, greenish-white or yellowish, and seldom open, except in very warm climates. It is a much-loved culinary herb with a delicate anise or licorice flavor.
French tarragon is sometimes confused in catalogs with Russian tarragon (also A. dracunculus); this is a larger, rank-growing plant with very few fragrant oils. If you buy tarragon seed, it will be this inferior variety.
Since French tarragon cannot be propagated by seed, it must be reproduced vegetatively. Division of old plants is the preferred method. This is best done in the spring as the new shoots are forming. Cuttings can also be taken, but they are slow to root and rooting is not entirely dependable.
Tarragon grows best in a sunny, fertile, well-drained site. Space the plants 2' apart. Harvest tarragon in early June to use fresh, and again in August for drying, when the plants are less succulent. The plant goes dormant and turns brown in early fall. The fresh herb may contain 10 times the flavor components of the dried product, making it more desirable for cooking.
This is considered to be one of the truly “fine” herbs. It has a characteristic licorice-like fragrance that is not as strong in the dried leaves. It is essential in tartar sauce and bearnaise sauce and enhances fish, pork, lamb, game, poultry, and many vegetables. Use with discretion so that it doesn’t become over-powering; also avoid cooking it too long or a bitter flavor will result.
The English word "tarragon" originates from the French word estragon or "little dragon," which is derived from the Arabic tarkhun. Some believe the herb was given this name because of its supposed ability to cure the bites of venomous reptiles, while others believe the plant was so named because of its coiled, serpent-like roots. Although alluded to briefly in the 13th century as a seasoning for vegetables, a sleep-inducing drug, and a breath sweetener, tarragon did not become well known until the 16th century.