My thoughts- The Three Tarragons: French, Russian and Mexican

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!).

Can you guess what these flowers are?

Monday’s vase

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.

Mexican Marigold Mint (Tagetes lucida)

Mexican Marigold Mint (Tagetes lucida)

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.

27 thoughts on “My thoughts- The Three Tarragons: French, Russian and Mexican

  1. Thank you Christina! This was very helpful and I am now pretty certain mine is Russian, as it gets very tall and is not terribly aromatic. I was actually surprised how hardy it is as I have had it for three or four years now. I wonder if other marigolds can be used as herbs…. I know the flowers are edible.

  2. how interesting, didn’t know there was a mexican one at all. I grew the russian one which is so vigorous that it is almost off-putting and it’s also the one you see in the garden centres. I’d love the french one though and think it’ll be okay with our mild climate…and hopefully less rampant!

  3. In fact they do look like tagetes, so that is a mystery solved. I have never heard of Mexican tarragon before.I grow French tarragon, but it is not reliably hardy here.

  4. Yes, the world of blogging is fantastic for these kind of things. I’d never heard of Mexican tarragon either until a few weeks ago when I was visiting a friend. She grows vegetables in a walled garden for a fancy restaurant and she had some plants in the glasshouse. French tarragon is one of my favourite herbs. I really look forward to the first pickings in spring for a chicken and creme fraiche recipe I make.

    • I was so surprised as I’d only heard of French and Russian tarragon. I’m pleased with the one I have as it has a great flavour and sailed through the hot weather this year, I doubt it will survive the winter outside so I may dig it up and put it in the greenhouse. I would have let some of the flowers go to seed if I’d known or maybe I will find seed somewhere.

  5. So interesting! I never knew there were so many different types. I love to eat tarragon raw. I think mine must be the French type (it should be!) as it does not grow very tall and I have never seen it flower. Amelia

  6. Well. For the longest time I grew what I thought was French tarragon, as that was what its original label stated, but, now, after reading your post I was inspired to look it up. Now I realize I did not have tarragon at all! Who knows what it was, but it had cute little fuzzy leaves.

  7. What a story! I never knew there was so much behind these simple herbs although I did know there were some tarragon “imposters”.
    Interesting that a Mexican marigold would make a halfway decent substitute for an European flavor, plus the blooms are quite showy!

  8. Inspired by your nice tall stems I decided to try growing this again. In the process of ordering the seeds I found another reference to it as ‘Texas Tarragon’ 🙂

  9. I have an aversion to licorice, which is inconvenient because so many herbal teas have it hidden among their many ingredients. Oddly, I do like French tarragon in small doses (so small that I will simply buy a bit at the grocer’s when the fancy strikes me. Your brilliant bouquet with the long stems could make that variety worth growing for its beauty.

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