• Russian Tarragon: The Little Dragon of the Garden

June 26, 2018

We always thought tarragon would be a great name for a dragon. Apparently, we weren't the only ones; Artemisia dracunculus roughly translates to "Artemis" (the Greek mythical huntress) and "little dragon." Russian tarragon is sometimes called estragon, which, as one of our female family members pointed out, is her spirit animal for a few days each month.

A. dracunculus is a hardy plant with a milder flavor and aroma than French tarragon. Where French tarragon is sterile and bears no flowers, Russian tarragon is a bit more impressive in the garden when it's allowed to bloom.

Cultural Origins

Russian tarragon is native to Siberia and other areas of Eurasia. If we were on Game of Thrones' mythical continent of Westeros, we'd find it just south of the Wall, but it would naturalize all the way to Essos. Here in North America, it grows well pretty much everywhere.

Russian tarragon is a member of the Asteraceae family, which includes sunflowers, asters, and daisies. It earned the name "little dragon" because of the snakelike shape of its roots, and folklore attributing it as a bane against these mythical creatures as well as poisonous snakes.

The Dutch call tarragon "snake herb" or "dragon blood", and the Chinese call it "dragon mugwort". It's referred to as "mugwort" in other cultures, though it shouldn't be confused with the true mugwort (Artemisia absinthium), more commonly known as "wormwood."

Icelandics relate tarragon to icons in their famous sagas, naming the herb after a dragon slain by one of their mythical heroes.

Tarragon as a Medicinal Herb

Tarragon doesn't have a rich history in natural medicine, because hey, didn't Russians treat everything with vodka? Maybe not. Perhaps they, like other European folks, embraced the tarragons for the following uses:

  • Cure bites from mad dogs (seriously, folks. See a doctor about this.)
  • Relieves stings and bites from insects and venomous snakes (again...consider your options.)
  • When chewed, it was thought to relieve toothaches
  • Induce appetite
  • Sleep aid (when the vodka runs out)
  • Induce menstruation (Pregnant ladies, take note...avoid using tarragon in concentrated amounts.)

Juice from tarragon leaves is still used today to add fragrance to soaps, shampoos, and skincare products, and the plant is thought to contain high levels of potassium and vitamins A and C.

Tarragon in the Garden

Artemisia dracunculus makes a great garden backdrop. It does well in non-irrigated, neglected areas of your yard, sometimes actually improving in potency when it's ignored. Adorned with long, thin, and graceful leaves, Russian tarragon sprigs make perfect accents for floral arrangements.

Growing Zones: Tarragon is an herbaceous perennial that grows and overwinters in USDA Zones 4a to 8b. It prefers a warm, dry climate. In more humid zones, give your plants plenty of breathing room.

Soil Requirements: Tarragon requires well-drained, even sandy soil. Too rich a soil will cause your plants to become "leggy" and less dense. Amend the soil with aged compost upon planting, but don't go overboard fertilizing established plants.  

pH: Tarragon does best with slightly acidic soils, with an ideal range between 6.3 and 7.5.

Sunlight Requirements: Full sun will produce the best plants. It tolerates light afternoon shade, but you'll likely lose out on flavor and plant vigor.

Moisture Requirements: Russian tarragon is fairly drought-tolerant, needing only infrequent watering. In the hottest climates, check for drooping and increase your watering frequency. See "Pests and Diseases" below for further watering recommendations. Never let your tarragon plants wallow in wet soil.

Size and Growing Habits: Tarragon is an upright-growing plant that can reach heights of five feet tall and about 30" wide within a year, though generally it's more compact and, on average, grows to about two feet high. Sometimes, tarragon grows wider than tall, especially when the ends of the stems are regularly pinched to promote a shrubbier plant.

Russian tarragon's spreading root system can cause the plant to crowd its neighbors; divide its roots every year or so to create new plants, or to keep them within your preferred growing area.

Flowers: Yellowish-green tiny flowers bloom in as many as 40 clusters on long, nodding stems. Bloom time is July through August.

Foliage: Russian tarragon has attractive, long, narrow, bright green leaves. The plant looks a lot more delicate than really is, and makes a fantastic ornamental for its foliage alone.

Aroma: Even undisturbed, tarragon leaves smell a bit like anise. Its odor isn't as strong as other tarragon varieties, and growing conditions affect the potency of its flavor and fragrance.

Companion Plants: Tarragon gets along with everyone, and its scent is believed to repel garden pests.

Growing Tarragon from Seed

Given that French tarragon is sterile and can't be propagated by seed, Russian tarragon is the perfect choice for your herb garden, or to raise starts to sell or give as gifts. It's easy to grow, and low-maintenance as a mature plant.

When to Plant: Get a jump on the season by starting seeds in peat pots or a light seedling mix 6 to 8 weeks ahead of your last spring frost. Direct-sow your tarragon seeds when the soil temperatures reach 60 to 70°F.

Germination: Expect to see seedlings emerge in 7 to 14 days.

Planting Depth: Tarragon requires sunlight to germinate, so plant your seeds on the soil's surface, or no more than 1/16 beneath.

Spacing: Tarragon shouldn't be crowded. Plant or thin 18" to 24" apart.

Transplanting: Transplant seedlings after about a week of "hardening off". Be sure to keep seeds and seedlings moist with a sprayer until they're well-established.

Maintenance: If you're growing tarragon from seed primarily for its flavor or medicinal properties, pinch off flower heads to preserve the leaves' potency and taste.

Tarragon will turn yellow early fall and die back after the first frost in all but the warmest zones. Cut the plant to ground level to tidy up your yard; it will grow back in spring. If you're in a colder zone grow your plants in pots and bring them indoors to keep them from freezing, or mulch (try straw, bark mulch, or fallen leaves) over roots left in the ground to give them protection from freezing.

Pests and Diseases: Tarragon has its very own type of cootie, a fungus called tarragon rust (Puccinia dracunculina). Proper plant spacing allows air circulation around each plant. As with other fungus-prone plants, water at ground level. Only water overhead early in the day to allow moisture to fully dry when the air warms up. These same precautions will fend off other fungi, including powdery mildew and root rot.

Tarragon isn't particularly susceptible to insect or invertebrate pests.

Harvesting: Pick young leaves throughout the summer for immediate use, or trim up to 1/3 of stems for tarragon sprigs. Scale back harvesting at the end of summer for the plant to store up energy for the winter; tarragon leaves are best harvested before the solstice.

You can keep sprigs of tarragon in a glass of water, or refrigerate in a damp paper towel for several days. Dry tarragon has a short shelf-life relative to other herbs, so we recommend freezing tarragon in baggies to keep you supplied through the winter.

Cooking with Tarragon

Tarragon is extremely popular in European cooking. While Russian tarragon is much milder than Mexican and French tarragon, it's less overpowering when used to accompany more delicately flavored ingredients. It does have a slightly bitter taste, however, and a hint of licorice.

And remember, you can't grow French tarragon from seed, so if the SHTF or you're invaded by White Walkers, it's not like you'll be able to evacuate your peasant hovels with a bunch of cuttings or plants. You'll want plenty of Artemisia dracunculus in your survival seed bank so you can flavor your MREs during the zombie apocalypse.

Tip: Before using tarragon as a seasoning, gently crush the leaves to get the most bang for your buck.

Stick some tarragon sprigs in a bottle of white wine vinegar for a classic dressing, or bundle it with other herbs to season soups and stews that don't tolerate the stronger French variety. This tender herb should be added toward the end of the cooking process so as not to deplete its flavor.

Now that you know what Russian tarragon can do, let's put theory into action!

Russian Tarragon Recipes

Note that many of the recipes below call for French tarragon, but you can substitute Russian tarragon anytime. Experiment by adding more A. dracunculus than the recipe requires. Remember that dried tarragon of any variety isn't nearly as strong as it is fresh so your garden-grown plants might have the advantage over the dried French stuff sold in supermarkets.

Everyone Wants Their Own Dragon...Herbs

You don't have to be a fan of Eragon or addicted to Game of Thrones to enjoy Artemisia dracunculus. You just have to have a love of gorgeous garden plants and a taste for delicious, classic dishes that would make America's ambassador of French Cuisine, Julia Child, proud. At least, if she weren't totally dead.

What isn't dead is our thriving family business, thanks to our growing group of loyal customers. We started Seed Needs by selling our fresh, high-quality, non-GMO seeds on Amazon and eBay, racking up enthusiastic reviews and developing a client base that spread the word to their fellow gardeners. You helped us grow our little enterprise from a part-time family activity to a full-time business.

But we still maintain our values and mission statement, and treat every order with the same care, hand-packaging your seeds for a last-minute quality check. Our success depends on yours, so please contact us if you have any questions, or you'd like to suggest new varieties for our catalog!


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