Try the unusual and slightly anise-flavoured leaves of this hardy, perennial herb to add a new taste to chicken and egg dishes, or for a tangy vinegar.
Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is a member of the Compositae family, which includes a wide variety of plants ranging from lettuces to dandelions. And like most members of this family, tarragon is easy to grow-, provided it has well-drained. The name tarragon comes from a French word meaning ‘little dragon’, and is thought to have been given cither because it described the strong, biting taste of the leaves, or, perhaps, because the herb was considered to have special, magical powers to cure bites from poisonous reptiles.
There are two types of tarragon, French and Russian. French tarragon is an attractive and aromatic low-growing, somewhat shrubby perennial, reaching about 1 m (3’) high and the same size across. It has dark green, shiny leaves which are narrow and pointed. When flowers are produced, they are in tiny clusters and greenish-white. French tarragon is the variety with the finest flavour. Russian tarragon is a larger plant, with less slender leaves, but its aroma and flavour are inferior to the French type.
Being a native of southern Europe, tarragon prefers a site which receives sun for most of the day, and one which is sheltered from cold winds. Good drainage is essential, as persistent winter damp will cause root rot, and the plant will quickly die. On the other hand, it does need moisture during the growing period, so add rottedbefore planting, to act as a sponge.
True French tarragon does not produce fertile seed in cool climates; it is propagated by root division or. You can also buy young plants to put out either in late spring or in early autumn. Dig a hole slightly larger than the pot the plant is growing in, remove the plant from the pot carefully, and put the plant in the ground. Fill in the soil round it and firm well with-your hands.
Tarragon requires little care, except for, and occasional watering if the weather is very hot and dry. Protect the plants with cloches in all but the most mild winters, and always protect tarragon which has been planted out in autumn, as frost can kill the young plants before they are established. Tarragon is free of virtually all .
Over the years tarragon leaves will begin to lose flavour. Either replace the plants every four or five years, or divide them and transplant to a new situation so that the soil does not become impoverished. You might want to keep two plants growing which have been planted in different years, so that you can replace one at a time and keep up a good supply of leaves.
Fresh leaves from established plants can be taken any time during the growing season. Cut sprigs as you need them from early spring until mid-autumn. If you want to dry tarragon, take shoots in early to mid-summer, or just before the plant begins to flower. Tie them in bunches and hang them in a dark, airy place to dry, such as an attic, spare room or airing cupboard, then store in air-tight opaque jars. However, do not expect as strong a flavour from dried leaves as from fresh. Tarragon is one herb which can be successfully frozen, and sprigs of fresh leaves can also be kept in sterilized glass jars.
Tarragon is not a particularly good subject for pot or windowbox cultivation. However, you can lift the plants in autumn and overwinter them in a cool greenhouse or a frame, where they should provide fresh leaves throughout the year. Keep theonly just moist, and do not let the plants get warmer than 13°C (55°F); otherwise the shoots are forced to grow fast, get very soft, and die as soon as the temperature drops. Plant them out again in spring.
If you want to propagate tarragon, do it by root division from your mature plants, preferably in late spring. Any small piece of root with a shoot on it will grow. You can al-so try propagating from cuttings of new shoots in spring or summer. Cuttings should be off the shoot tips, about 10 cm (4”) long; put them in a good potting compost, with clear polythene over them, and leave in a warm shaded position. They will be ready forfour or five weeks later, when well rooted.
French tarragon has a variety of uses in the kitchen. Use the leaves, either fresh or dried, with chicken, in egg dishes, to flavour Hollandaise sauce or mayonnaise, or put a sprig in a bottle of white wine vinegar.