French tarragon’s name is derived from the Greek drakon, meaning ‘little dragon’, which is most likely a reference to the plant’s serpentine root system. Historically, tarragon was thought to ward off exhaustion, and this belief led pilgrims during the Middle Ages to place sprigs in their boots prior to starting out. Today it is not used medicinally; however, it is one of the most important culinary herbs in classic French cooking. Tarragon is used to infuse flavour in vinegar, and is a key ingredient in “fines herbes” mixtures as well as sauces such as béarnaise, hollandaise, and tartare. It is almost always used fresh, as it loses much of its flavour when dried. Make sure you do not try to cook with Russian Tarragon, as it has little or no flavour.
French Tarragon must always be started from cuttings or seedlings, as the seed always produces the Russian variety. Since it is a tender perennial, it is best to grow tarragon in pots, and over-winter it indoors. Plant it in a well-drained soil, and place in full sun to partial shade, in a sheltered location.
(Written by Gini Sage, this article was originally published in the Uxbridge Horticultural Society newsletter, April 2007.)