Over the past 7 years I have written about a wide range of edible plants. They all have their own particular flavor. However there are some flavors that carry across multiple species of plant. One of the common ones is ‘lemon fragrance’. Although it doesn’t really taste like lemons we all know the taste and find it a really good substitute for natural lemon. Plants like Lemon Verbena, Lemon balm, Mint Lemon are just a few that have this widely recognized and liked synthetic lemon flavor. An even more widely spread flavor is the Anise/Liquorice group.
We often call it Aniseed which is another name for Anise or Pimpinella anisum and comes from the organic compound anethole or its related isomer, estragole. These chemicals are the active flavor component in Anis, Fennel, Liquorice, Thai Basil and Tarragon. It is one of the most popular and common flavours in the plant world.
There is a lot of discussion on the pluses and minuses of the chemicals that provide the aniseed flavor but little debate on the popularity of the flavor. It doesn’t matter if you call it aniseed or liquorice everyone knows what you are discussing and most of us love the flavor but there are odd person who really dislikes the taste and avoids it whenever possible. The two chemicals are present across a broad range of plants with no botanical connection. Hence the common names are often similar and imply a genetic relationship which is not the case as in the plants with a common name of Tarragon.
In the modern herbal world there are three Tarragons: French, Russian and Mexican. The latter refers to the plant Tagetes lucida – a Tagetes with a strong aniseed flavor. The other two tarragons are closely related although there is a lot of debate around their evolutionary history. They are - French: Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa and Russian: Artemisia dracunculoides. Even this seems caught up in debate and discussion with the general acceptance that the latter is a synonym for A. dracunculus.
French Tarragon is the elite form and has been around for a few centuries. It has a soft and sweet aniseed flavour that is ideal for the lighter meats and salads. It works very well with egg, fish and chicken dishes. It and chervil are the two key herbs in the traditional French Bearnaise Sauce. Along with Parsely, Chervil and Chives it makes up the classic blend 'Fines Herbes' which is a key ingredient in French Haute Cuisine. French Tarragon is a sterile cultivar that must be done by cutting or root division. As such the flavour is consistent over the years and around the world.
Russian Tarragon is really the poor cousin of French Tarragon. It is the species form and is generally grown by seed. As a seed grown plant it is extremely variable in the balance and strength of the constituent flavours. Some plants are very strongly flavoured and some are quite mild. It works well in salads and oils where the flavour isn't as critical.
In the garden, Mexican Tarragon makes an attractive bush with deep green leaves and golden yellow flowers at the end of the stems. It grows to around 1m and is related to the various marigolds and has many common names including Mexican Marigold and Mint Marigold. It is a native to southern USA and northern Mexico where it grows well in full sun and is tolerant of heat and low water levels.
French and Russian Tarragon both have lanceolate blue green leaves and come from south eastern Europe and southern Russia. In the cooler climates it is a herbaceous perennial and has rhizomatous roots that will produce a range of shoots away from the initial plant. It likes a warm sunny spot with moist but well drained soil. The Russian form actually prefers poorer soils and responds best to a slightly neglected position. Both forms have pale green-yellow flowers that occur in early to mid autumn. Any plant grown from seed will be 'Russian' or 'Wild' Tarragon and any seed produced will have come from one of these varieties.
French Tarragon grows to around 60 cm and Russian to about 1m. Like the flavours, the French Tarragon is a neat and compact shrub and the Russian is a wild grower with a range of growth habits. The fresh young leaves in late spring have the best flavour.
There is some debate to effects from consuming Tarragon. Mexican Tarragon has been used historically to produce incense and for ancient native rituals. Some say that if smoked it is an halucinogenic but the references on this are somewhat varied and often involve smoking it with other plant material. There is some suggestion that this may also be the case with French and Russian but no real scientific evidence of this. As it is an Artemisia there are some people who believe it has various therapeutic and relaxation properties. There is also a very good essential oil produced by steam distillation of the French and Russian leaves.
In summary, Mexican Tarragon makes a nice relaxing tea that blends well with mints and Stevia. French Tarragon is a delightful herb that accentuates the flavour of egg and fish dishes. Russian Tarragon is a vigorous shrub that is best for oils and salads.