Tarragon is an elegant garden herb — choose the plant best for you

By Connie Mehmel
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener

Mexican tarragon flowers.
Mexican tarragon flowers in the Boswell Garden at the Chelan County Expo Center near Cashmere. It is one of three different plants that bear the “tarragon” name. — Provided photo/Connie Mehmel
Connie Mehmel
Connie Mehmel – WSU Extension Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener – Provided photo

If you haven’t yet discovered tarragon, a gastronomic adventure awaits you. Its aromatic leaves have a pungent licorice or anise flavor that is a complement to fish, meat, vegetables or salads. It is often used in sauces and vinegars.

If you want to introduce this herb to your garden, be aware that three different plants bear the common name of “tarragon.” These are French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa), Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus dracunculoides) and Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida). Before you plant, you should learn the differences.

French tarragon is native to temperate zones in Europe and Asia. It was cultivated in English gardens as early as the 16th century, and was brought to America by British colonists. It is a hardy, perennial shrub that is spread by rhizomes. It rarely flowers and any flowers produced are usually sterile, so French tarragon is almost always propagated from cuttings or root division.

If your neighbor has an established French tarragon plant with good culinary qualities, maybe you can get permission to take a few 6-inch tips in late spring or early summer when the plant is actively growing. Strip the leaves from the lower part of each cutting, set them in a seed-starting medium and keep them well watered until they have rooted. It’s a good idea to transfer them to pots with growing medium until the roots are well developed. Then you can plant them out in the garden.

Russian tarragon (sometimes called wild tarragon) is the same species as French tarragon, but a different variety. The leaves may or may not possess the licorice aroma and flavor of the French variety. Russian tarragon has a history of use as a medicinal herb, but is considered vastly inferior as a spice. Unlike French tarragon, it does produce flowers and seeds, so if you see tarragon seeds for sale in a catalog, they are almost certainly Russian tarragon.

Mexican tarragon is in the genus Tagetes, or marigolds. It has many names, including Mexican mint, Mexican marigold and pericón. It is native to Mexico and Central America, where it is a perennial herb valued for its aromatic leaves, which are used in the same way as French tarragon. The plant also has lovely little yellow flowers that attract bees and other pollinators. Grown as an annual in our climate, it thrives in full sun and is drought tolerant once established. I discovered this charming herb last year, and it has become one of my favorites.