French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’) resembles a tall grass, medium in texture with slender leaves, but on branched stems growing 18 to 24 inches tall and semi-erect. It grows without flowers or distinctive form to set it apart. In an herb bed, it becomes one of a cook’s resources to create a memorable meal, but for the gardener, the ingredient is less remarkable. Plant adjacent to more architectural plants such as lemon grass or rosemary. Contrasting plants with large or colorful leaves, such as sweet basil or Purple Ruffles basil, will help set tarragon apart in a garden bed.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Well-behaved in the garden, French tarragon does not spread underground like other herbs, nor will it reseed. In fact, it rarely flowers and never produces seeds. That means that new plants must be produced from rooted cuttings in order to have the classic tarragon flavor. Russian tarragon is seed grown and less desirable in flavor.
Grown as a clump-forming perennial in most of the country, French tarragon thrives in regions where winter provides a period of rest and summers are not too hot or too wet. In warm climates, give French tarragon some shelter from the afternoon sun. In a subtropical climate, French tarragon behaves like a winter annual, planted in fall and harvested through winter and spring.
French tarragon has a fleshy root system that prefers a loose, soil enriched with organic matter. However, it must be well-drained. In fact, it is quite drought tolerant. If your soil is heavy and your climate hot and humid, you will have the best chance of success by planting in a container or hanging basket where it drains well and has good air circulation.
Remember to cut back browned foliage in spring to make way for new growth. Where it prospers, divide the plant every third year to renew it.
Be sure to locate plant in a bed that drains well, or the roots can rot. If your container plant turns brown and looks dead in winter, even if it is in your house or greenhouse, cut it back and give it time. It is probably just dormant for the season.
Harvest and Storage
Like most herbs, French tarragon is delicious fresh, but for winter the leaves need to be preserved. Cut new growth in spring and again in fall for drying. Remove the leaves from the stems by running your fingers down the stem from tip to base. Spread these to dry in a cool, relatively dry location, such as an air-conditioned room. Avoid drying in heat as flavorful oils will be lost. After drying, store in an airtight container away from direct light.
French terragon is a traditional seasoning with eggs, poultry, salads, cheese, and fish. Tarragon chicken salad is a particular favorite, ideal for a summer lunch. Include it in seasoning blends such as fines herbes and bouquet garni. It is a must-have ingredient for Sauce Béarnaise. Also, French tarragon makes an excellent herb-flavored vinegar, alone or in combination with other herbs.