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Tarragon

Tarragon
Tarragon
Tarragon background image © chamillew - Fotolia.com #46946925

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Tarragon - Background and History

Tarragon is a generally markedly aromatic rhizomatous perennial chiefly employed as a culinary herb. Closely related to wormwood, ginger, and, indirectly, to the sunflower family, it was highly popular in French cuisine since the pre-Revolutionary era (and even perhaps during ancient times) it features very frequently as a condiment, additive, and general accoutrement to various French dishes, and as a medicinal herb in various branches of naturopathic practices.



Although said to be a native of Indochina, tarragon is a relatively more popular herb in the Western context (from whence it spread, ideally as an introduced species), where it has been employed for culinary and medicinal purposes since the latter part of the 1600s. Prior use of the herb in ancient times whether for culinary or medicinal purposes is minimal at best, and it was not until the early 17th century that the employment of the herb as an integral part of Continental (i. e. French, Italian) and Eurasian cuisine and herbalism was established.

Earlier usage of tarragon is at best dubious, but not altogether absent. It has been suggested that the earliest usage of the herb dates back to the time of the Ancient Greeks, who employed tarragon as a minor medicinal herb, only to later employ it occasionally in their culinary endeavours, and then only chiefly as a preservative. The Egyptians likewise employed tarragon, both in their esoteric herbalist practices, as well as in their general medicine, although its usage was very rare owing to the herb’s not being locally grown and thus relatively valuable. Contradictory accounts suggest that the Egyptians may have adopted the practice of employing tarragon from the Arabs or the Persians, who oftentimes employed the herb medicinally just well after the Ancient Greeks. It was not until the early 1600s until well into the latter part of the 1700s that the use of tarragon as both a culinary and medicinal herb became commonplace although its use was more regional than ever it was in a sense ‘universal’, mainly due to its unique flavour-profile which was found suitable for some types of cuisine, but not always desirable for others.

Tarragon is notable for its highly aromatic (often bordering on pungent) aroma and often overpowering flavour-profile (the latter is true especially if it is used in excess). This small, slightly ‘picky’ plant comes in three distinct varieties, each with their own characteristic ‘temperaments’. Regardless of its variety however, all true tarragons are characterized by sparse, glossy, needle-like leaves (resembling rosemary leaves, albeit longer and more, thinner, and more pronounced) of a dark-green to off-green hue that grow on thin to moderately branches. It tends to be wiry, bordering on the shrubby depending upon soil quality, and grows to no more than a hundred-and-fifty centimeters in length. Tarragon is further characterised by its tiny inflorescence, usually taking up nearly the whole of the plant during blooming season. These tiny florets, usually no more than four to five millimeters in diameter and less than two centimeters in length and are usually yellowish, greenish, or jade-hued. The characteristic florets are not universal for all varieties of tarragon however, as some variants possess no flowers at all. The most popular specie of tarragon – the French variety (Artemisia dracunculus), is most often flowerless and, consequently, does not bear any fertile seeds. Other species of tarragon, such as the Russian variety (Artemisia dracunoculoides) and its wild variants (Artemisia glauca) do bear flowers, but its seeds are sterile and will not flourish regardless of the planting method. The propagation of tarragon is chiefly done through the re-planting of its rhizomes. [1]



While tarragon is chiefly valued for the pungency of its aroma, not all variants of tarragon possess this much-loved characteristic. Of the three (excluding wild strains) available, only the French variety is valued for its incomparable aroma and flavour. Tarragon is typically a ‘picky’ or ‘temperamental’ plant, requiring adequate levels of soil fertility, moisture, and shade despite being a perennial bush. Other varieties such as the Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunoculoides), and the wild tarragon (Artemisia glauca) are hardier, prefer baser soils, and relatively tolerant of harsher climates, although at the sacrifice of aroma and flavour. The Mexican ‘variety’ (also referred to as the Mexican marigold mint - Tagetes lucida) is not true tarragon in the strictest sense of the word, but is similar to tarragon in many ways that it has all but been adopted into the family, albeit informally. [2] Tarragon (regardless of the variety) is typically dried prior to use. It is almost usually employed in its whole form, although ground tarragon is also available. When employed medicinally, tarragon may be used in either its fresh or dried state. In older herbalist physick recipe books, its roots and flowers are likewise employed medicinally, although this practice is no longer employed today.

Tarragon - Common / Popular Uses

While not exactly a very popular herb, tarragon is most commonly employed for culinary purposes especially in Continental and Occidental cuisine and is a staple flavouring herb. Prior to its popularity in the Continental cuisine, tarragon started out as a relatively obscure herb from Eurasia, with more medicinal than culinary uses. Its employment as medicine however was limited, and it was not until the introduction of tarragon to the French that its culinary purposes were fully realized. Today, tarragon is most commonly employed in the creation of fines herbes. Because of its highly aromatic yet nuanced flavour, it works best with ‘plain’ foods such as eggs, poultry, some types of fish, and rarely, some types of game. Because of its delicate nature, tarragon is most commonly used to flavour foodstuffs that require only short cooking times. Within the context of culinary herbage, tarragon as a part of fines herbes is unlike a bouquet garni in that it does not require the prolonged cooking time of the latter to truly realise its full range of flavours. [3] In fact, the contrary is true of a majority of fines herbes (among them being chives, chervil, and marjoram, to name a few), in that moderate temperatures and relatively short cooking times release the best of its flavours and aromas.

Despite its commonality as a fines herbes, tarragon in sometimes (not altogether erroneously) added to bouquet garnis, if only for added nuance than any long-term flavour boost which will be all but diminished due to the prolonged cooking time that bouquet garnis are subjected to. Tarragon has become a staple in Mediterranean cooking, so much so that nearly every possible cooking ingredient, whether it be oils or vinegars, are often infused with the flavour or essence of tarragon. Along these lines, many minor culinary accoutrements such as sauce Tantare contain vinegar which has been imbued with the flavour of tarragon, while some dishes are ‘seasoned’ or flavoured with oil imbued with the essence of tarragon.

The use of the herb for culinary purposes also spread well beyond the Mediterranean and Continental sphere, until it became ingrained into some facets of Eastern European cuisine. In Hungaria and Slovenia, tarragon is employed as a flavouring herb for both soup-based dishes and desserts such as pastries. Interestingly, Eastern European cuisine considers tarragon to be a spice instead of an herb, although the reason for this is vague. Within the Arabian continent and its neighboring territories, tarragon also plays a major role in the culinary range. Having been an herb that was relatively naturalized and spread from the Arabian continent after its chance introduction from Indochina, tarragon soon became an important ingredient in many Arabian foodstuffs, ranging from meat-based dishes, vegetable dishes, desserts, and even a variety of different beverages. Tarragon is employed, albeit rarely in European and New World cuisine, although it has been used in recent years as a seasoning for various dishes. Cross-culturally, tarragon has been used to flavour both soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, the former is a relatively modern innovation.

The use of tarragon for medicinal purposes dates back to the time of the Ancient Greeks, although its use was relatively minimal and inconsequential. The earliest use of tarragon usually involved its raw employment as a general antiseptic and early anaesthetic. The Ancient Greeks were said to chew on raw tarragon leaves to combat halitosis and improve the health of their teeth and gums. Because of its antiseptic and anaesthetic properties, tarragon is usually chewed to relieve the pain associated with toothaches since it effectively numbs the area only minutes after chewing. [4] Furthermore, it has been employed as a remedy for oral cancer sores and general orally-associated pains not only for its numbing effect, but for its potent antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Traditional medicinal practice associates chewing tarragon with its being a remedy for hiccups, although the validity of this practice is unreliable. Excessive intake of tarragon tisane, or drinking very potent brews may result in a need to visit the loo more often than necessary, as tarragon acts as a natural laxative and emmenagogue when taken in excess. [5] Moderate consumption of light or mild decoctions of tarragon, or moderate incorporation of the herb to one’s daily fair may help to prevent certain cardiovascular diseases, and help improve the overall health of diabetics due to its cardio-protective and antihyperglycemic properties. Tarragon tisane is also believed to increase the metabolic rate and improve the absorption of nutrients, making it a perfect addition to a dieter’s regimen. [6]

When bruised or crushed into a fine paste, or otherwise ground into a fine powder, it may be applied to open lacerations, ulcerations, boils, and wounds to help prevent infection and facilitate in wound healing. Mixed with oil and heated, it may be employed as a poultice for large injuries, and may even be used as a compress for mending injuries to hasten healing, or to soothe inflammations, especially if mixed with anti-inflammatory spices like ginger root or cinnamon bark.

Dried tarragon leaves may be employed as an inhalant to help relieve headaches, migraines, and stuffy noses. It can easily be employed as an inhalant either by throwing a handful of tarragon fresh or dried leaves unto a pot of boiling water and inhaling the fumes, or by burning dried leaves on charcoal and indirectly inhaling the wafted aroma. Employed either way, inhaling tarragon does not only soothe headaches, it also helps to clear nasal and bronchial passageways, its aromatherapeutic properties are also said to ward off depression, remedy insomnia, and soothe anxiety. [7] The ensuing vapour from tarragon incense is also an effective means to ward off insects such as mosquitoes, flies, roaches, and other nuisances since the aroma of tarragon is said to be highly deterrent to insects.

When brewed as a tisane, tarragon leaves can be drunk as a soothing beverage. Light decoctions of fresh or dried tarragon may be drunk as a mild tranquiliser. Tarragon tisane has been employed since the early 1600s as a remedy for hyperactivity, hysteria, insomnia, anxiety, depression and general stress. [8] A single cup of tarragon tea a day is said to help the body cope up with the rigors of daily physical or mental activity, and a cup of tarragon tea in the evening prior to bedtime is said to encourage restful sleep, especially when combined with other soothing herbs such as lavender, chamomile, and comfrey. Mild to moderately strong decoctions of tarragon can be drunk prior to, and after meals in order to whet the appetite and aid in digestion – a common practice in many Mediterranean households since ancient times. Very potent decoctions of tarragon have been employed as a vermifuge to expel parasitic worms in the intestines. [9] The generally bitter, extremely pungent brew is a highly effective anthelmintic for children, although its efficiency when used on adults varies. It may be combined with other anthelmintic herbs such as wormwood and yarrow, although of all herbal de-wormers, tarragon is considerably the safest by comparison.

Dried tarragon leaves may be made into a tincture by mixing it with one’s choice of 100% proof alcoholic beverage. The ensuing tincture may be diluted with water or one’s choice of non-alcoholic beverage and drunk as a remedy for restlessness, anxiety, depression, indigestion, or a lack of appetite. Care should be taken when consuming tinctures of tarragon however, as its potency may cause unwanted side-effects such as vomiting or nausea when consumed in excess.

The essential oil of tarragon which is derived via steam distillation from its dried leaves can be employed for aromatherapeutic or topical purposes, although the latter requires ample dilution in a base oil of once choosing. When employed semi-pure, it can be used as a remedy for toothaches in much the same way as clove oil, but dropping or daubing a minute amount of it unto the ailing tooth. Significantly diluted, it can be employed as an insect repellant oil, or as an anti-fungal or anti-bacterial ointment. It can be applied to insect bites, minor wounds, and trifling injuries to prevent infection and facilitate in faster healing.

Tarragon - Esoteric / Magickal Uses

When employed esoterically, tarragon is most often associated with detoxification. Its roots, when ground and applied directly to the bites of any slithering or mad creature is said to neutralise whatever poison or toxin the bite possesses. This belief in its antidotal properties was quite commonplace during the Middle Ages, in spite of (or perhaps due to) the fact that tarragon was a relatively strange and unpopular herb during those times. The belief of its antivenom-like properties was said to spring from the fact that its roots appeared to resemble that of tiny intertwined serpents. Its use as a remedy for snakebite and dog bites may not altogether be unfounded, as tarragon’s detoxifying properties may play a hand in its (dubious) efficiency. [10]

Within the context of Western ceremonial magick, tarragon is employed primarily as a protective herb. Sprinkled around living quarters, doorways, or literally any means of egress, it is said to protect an area against malignant spirits. Burnt as incense, it can be employed to banish negativity and exorcise ghosts and other malignant entities. Sprinkling tarragon upon the windowsills and doorways is said to protect the home from thieves. Tarragon is often employed by Hedge Witches as a calming herb, typically given to guests in the form of tisanes, or otherwise integrated into foodstuffs to soothe their unease and to cultivate a feeling of warmth and welcome. In traditional witchcraft, tarragon is the herb of choice for the consecration of chalices, and, within the more modern context, any magickal accoutrement of one’s choosing. Tarragon is often employed by shamans, as well as by individuals who subscribe to voodoo or hoodoo as a ‘fixing’ herb, or as an herb that attracts love, luck, aids in personal growth, and elicits desire. It may be employed in the creation of protective medicine pouches, or incorporated in juju bags specifically geared towards evoking an aura of desirability emanating from the bearer. Some medicine pouches use tarragon as an invigorating and enervating herb said to bolster courage and enhance one’s innate bravery. [11]

Tarragon - Safety Notes

While tarragon is relatively safe when consumed in moderate doses, recent studies have shown that its bioactive compound estragole is a known carcinogen. However, the dangers associated with the consumption of tarragon in relation to the risk of developing cancer are extremely minimal even if tarragon is consumed on a daily basis. Due to its emmenagogue and laxative properties however, tarragon tisanes must never be drunk in excess at full-potency. Furthermore, pregnant women are advised to temporarily abstain from the consumption of products containing tarragon, or to limit their consumption to a bare minimal to avoid the risks of accidental abortion or complications. General consumption of tarragon, in moderate doses are otherwise considered safe for non-pregnant women, pre-and post adolescent males, and children well-above four years of age.

Names of Tarragon, past and present

Chinese: yin chen hao
Japanese: taragono (transliteration of ‘tarragon’)
Arabic: tarkkhun
Old French: esdragon (lit. ‘little dragon’) / esdragon
French: armoise acre / estragon / dragonne / herbe au dragon / petit dragon
Spanish: tarragon / esdragon (adopted from Old French)
Mediaeval English (esoteric): little dragon / dragon’s herb / dragon’s mugwort / dragonwort (relegated to obscure esoteric usage, unreliable) / wyrmwort (see previous remark) / mugwort (erroneous nomenclature, usually employed folklorically)
English: tarragon / French tarragon / Russian tarragon / Mexican tarragon
Latin (esoteric): dracunculus (lit. ‘a little dragon’)
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Artemisia dracunculus (French variety) / Artemisia dracunculoides - Pursch (Russian variety) / Artemisia glauca / Tagetes lucida (Mexican ‘variety’, not exactly true tarragon per-se)

Tarragon - References:

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarragon

[2] http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/newsletters/hortupdate/2009/jan09/Tarragon.html

[3] http://www.weightwatchers.ca/util/art/index_art.aspx?tabnum=1&art_id=33591&sc=3021

[4] http://theherbgardener.blogspot.com/2011/03/medicinal-uses-for-tarragon.html

[5] http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/tarragon-herb.html

[6] http://www.unisa.it/uploads/4941/117.sahu.pdf

[7 – 8] http://www.gardensablaze.com/HerbTarragonMed.htm

[9 – 10] http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/t/tarrag07.html

[11] http://www.gardensablaze.com/HerbTarragonMag.htm

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt. © herbs-info.com 2013

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