The Three Tarragons: French, Russian and Mexican
On Monday I shared with you a vase of flowers and I asked if any of you recognised what they were. I thought I knew, but I was wrong and in the land of blogging there is always someone who knows the right answer!
I had been sold this plant as French Tarragon as this has the best flavour but I was very surprised when it suddenly began to flower as I had always thought that French Tarragon was always grown from cuttings because the flowers were infertile and, I thought, non existent. The leaves had a wonderfully strong aniseed flavour and were certainly the long lance-shape that I expected.
Then Cath at Absent Gardener wrote that she thought my tarragon might be Mexican rather than French or Russian – I’d never even heard of Mexican tarragon so some investigation followed.
I found a brilliant site by Cynthia W. Mueller, Galveston County Master Gardener, which I’m sure she will not mind if I share my summary; click here for a link to her original article.
All three of the herbs usually referred to as tarragon are from the Compositae (sunflower) family. These three plants share the same rich, anise/liquorice flavour that is indispensable to many French and English recipes. Especially good with chicken and some fish dishes and sauces.
French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
The true French tarragon is Artemisia dracunculus, indigenous to Russia and western Asia, but has a permanent place in Western cuisine, and is especially popular in France, England and the United States. It appears to have the purest flavour, and is usually grown from cuttings rather than seed. The plants grow to a height of about 2 – l/2 feet. French leaves are smoother, glossier, darker and more pungent and aromatic than those of the Russian plants.
Russian Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides Pursch)
The English word tarragon is a corruption of the French word estragon, or little dragon, derived from the Arabic tarkhun. Various folklore beliefs were that tarragon was good for treating the bites of venomous snakes, while others thought the name was due to the coiled serpent like roots of the plant. The Russian plant is thought to be less flavourful than the true French tarragon, and is more robust, growing to a height of about 5 feet. (mine is about 2 ft tall) The ancient Greeks and Romans did not include artemisias in their kitchen repertoire and it was only rarely mentioned during medieval times. The Arab botanist and pharmacist, Ibn-al-Baytar of Spain, mentioned it as a breath sweetener, sleep aid and as a seasoning for vegetables. It was not until the 16th century that tarragon could be considered one of the condiments of the Western world.
True tarragon does not like summer heat and is not very permanent in the garden. Often people who purchase tarragon plants believe they are getting the French variety but have purchased the Russian one, instead. Both do best in warm, dry, well-drained light soils in a sunny location. Protect from severe frost and wet feet mulching sometimes helps it withstand cold weather. These two plants do not do well from seed and their flowers are rather obscure, and whitish-green. (Ah! so mine is definitely not either of these!).
An oil is made from tarragon that is used in the manufacture of pickles, flavouring of liquors and vinegars. The taste is good with chicken dishes, and can be mixed into fines herbes mixtures, fish sauces and tomato juice. Because of the strength of the flavour, add sparingly and taste during the process of creating the flavouring at hand. Tarragon vinegar is especially good as salad dressing, or for adding flavour to sauces such as béarnaise, tartare and hollandaise.
Mexican Marigold Mint (Tagetes lucida)
Then we have the Mexico/Southwest US native, Mexican Marigold Mint. This perennial plant has small golden flowers in autumn (mine obviously has these) and can easily take the place of the longed-for tarragon hotter climates. It, too, has a wonderful anise/liquorice smell and taste.
An average plants grow about 3 feet tall, but there is a shorter strain available occasionally. They also thrive in hot, dry places in full sun in the flower bed. Dig the clumps every 2 or 3 years and reset. Use the same concepts for vinegar making and for drying leaves, although the fresh leaves seem to be the best to me.
So my thanks to Cath and to you who thought they looked like Tagetes – YOU WERE RIGHT!!!
Isn’t it great that we can all help each other with information, suggestions and that we can share our knowledge.