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Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa is native to the Caspian Sea area and Siberia. It is now cultivated widely in Europe, Asia, and the US. The name comes from the French esdragon, meaning "little dragon". Perhaps the dragon-like roots were seen as being able to strangle the plant if not divided often. Long ago, it was used to treat snakebite, and pilgrims of the Middle Ages wore some on their boots when they started out on their journeys. The juices of French tarragon and fennel were combined to make a favorite drink for the kings of India. It made its way into English gardens during the reign of Henry the VIII, and one legend has it that he divorced Catherine of Aragon because of her reckless use of the herb. Thomas Jefferson was an early distributor of French tarragon in the US.
Harvest and Use: French tarragon is grown for its distinctively flavored leaves. Its mint-anise taste is particularly suited to vinegar and fish. It was also used to stimulate the appetite, relieve flatulence and colic, cure rheumatism, and relieve toothache. Chew on a leaf and you will feel a numbness in your tongue.
French tarragon has a few uses beyond the culinary. It has antioxidant and antifungal properties making it a good food preservative. It has been found in perfumes, soaps, cosmetics, and liqueurs. It is one of the fines herbes in French cooking. This classic combination is made up of four fresh herbs: tarragon, thyme, parsley, and chervil. It is also found in Herbes de Provence, which, my friend from Provence informs me, is not a combination of set herbs, but simply a blend of herbs found in the Mediterranean region.
Go lightly when using French tarragon in cooking as the herb can easily overpower the other flavors and can be somewhat bitter. Use fresh leaves in salads or as a garnish. It is found in the classic sauces remoulade and béarnaise, in French dressing, and in the classic dish, Escalopes de Veau a l'Estragon. It goes with fish, shellfish, pork, beef, lamb, game, and poultry. Vegetables and fruits like leeks, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, artichokes, asparagus, mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, peas, parsley, chervil, garlic, chives, lemons, oranges, rice, and barley all benefit from the addition of tarragon. It makes a delicious vinegar alone or in combination with chives, lemon balm, shallots, and garlic and goes well in creamed soups and sauces, and with cheese, eggs, sour cream, and yogurt.
A few fresh leaves are harvested by snipping with a scissors. Two large harvests can generally be taken in the second year. The first cutting is possible when the plant reaches 8 to 10 inches tall. Cut the entire plant about 2" above the ground. I prefer to preserve tarragon either by freezing or putting it in vinegar rather than drying it because it loses flavor and the leaves can turn brown when dried. If you decide to dry, hang bunches upside down in a warm, dark, dry place where there is good air circulation. Handle the leaves carefully as they bruise easily.
Cultivation and Propagation: French tarragon is an aromatic, clump-forming, shrubby perennial with upright, branched stems and lance-shaped, smooth, light to mid-green leaves that grow about 3" long. It reaches a height of 2' with an 18" spread. The nondescript flowers are usually sterile and do not yield viable seed, so plants must be purchased. It is hardy to zone 3, likes rich, sandy, well-drained loam with a pH of 6.9, in full or partial shade. Mulching with shredded bark protects it from harsh winters. Cut it back to the ground in spring, remove dead stems, and trim to shape. When companion planting, French tarragon will enhance the growth of any vegetable it is near.
The only seed available on the market is for Russian tarragon. I do not recommend the Russian variety for cooking because it almost completely lacks the odor and flavor of true French tarragon. Once your plants are established, you can increase your supply by dividing in spring or by taking cuttings. The plant should be divided every 3 to 4 years to remain productive.