TARRAGON (Artemisia dracunculus – Compositae)
This small, bushy, perennial plant is thought to originate from Asia, but has now spread all over Europe. There are two varieties of tarragon.
Artemisia dracunculus, the ‘true’, ‘French’ tarragon, is the one valued in cooking and medicine; A. dracunculoides, ‘false’ or ‘Russian’ tarragon, has coarser leaves and a coarser flavour. Other members of the Artemisia family, used in folk medicine, are A. absinthium, wormwood (used in the making of absinthe, now banned because of its thujone content), A. vulgaris, mugwort, and A. abrotanum, southernwood.
True tarragon has leaves which are bright green, narrow, lance-shaped and undivided (unlike other artemisias). They have a unique, pleasant, aromatic taste. The tarragon plant grows to a height of about 60-90 cm (2-3 ft), and is easily cultivated in a warm spot or in a sunny window box. It bears tiny, greenish-yellow flowers in August, but these rarely open in cool climates and as a result the plant rarely sets seed. It is propagated by cuttings, and if seeds are available, they are likely to be those of the prolific Russian tarragon. Tarragon is one of only three common herbal plants to come from the Compositae, the second largest family of flowering plants (along with calendula or marigold and chamomile).
The botanical names come from Greek and Latin: artemisia for Artemis, the Greek virgin goddess of the hunt and the moon; dracunculus from the Latin for ‘little dragon’ (probably derived from the Arabic tarkhun meaning little dragon as well). The French name estragon is derived from the Latin, and in fact the tarragon plant is referred to in old French texts as herbe au dragon and was used in the Middle Ages for bites and stings of mad dogs and other beasts. Another name at this time was targon.
The plant was thought to have been introduced to Europe by the Crusaders. Arab doctors had long recommended it for combating flatulence and in the tenth century Avicenna advised its use for fermentation, bad digestion and flatulence. In 1548, Matthiole said it should be mixed with salad leaves (as did Gerard later), a practice which still exists in France. Tarragon gained a great reputation in the eighteenth century as a stomachic, stimulant and sudorific. In France, Dr Cazin had good results prescribing it for hiccoughs, dyspepsia, gout and rheumatism.
TARRAGON ESSENTIAL OIL
Description: Tarragon oil is distilled from the leaves and is generally colourless, perhaps very slightly green. The smell is reminiscent of anise or fennel, and it has a wonderful, slightly spicy, taste.
The principal constituents: Phenol (up to 70 per cent estragol), with cymene, linalyl acetate, phellandrene and traces of aldehyde.
Dangers: As many react to estragol, also known as methyl-chavicol, the oil should be used very carefully.
Tarragon oil is useful in massage oils to help dysmenorrhoea, amenorrhoea, PMT and menopause. The plant is digestive when eaten raw, and an infusion of chopped tarragon in 1 litre (1 3/4 pints) boiling water acts as a good diuretic (See also constipation and menstrual cycle problems.)
Tarragon is considered one of the most important herbs in cookery, because of its wonderful flavour. It is particularly associated with chicken: place tarragon leaves under the skin of a chicken to be roasted, and put a whole halved lemon and a few more tarragon leaves inside the cavity before cooking. Tarragon also makes a wonderful vinegar: simply stuff some leaves into a bottle of white wine vinegar and leave for about 2 weeks before use (a good way of preserving tarragon, as dried it is virtually tasteless). Tarragon is used raw as garnish and in salads, in bouquet garnis, chopped in fines herbes (with parsley and chives), and in sauces like Bearnaise, Hollandaise and tartare. It also flavours mustard, pickled cucumbers or gherkins, and some local French liqueurs. In the Near East, the young tips or shoots are cooked and eaten as a vegetable.
One of the most significant characteristics of tarragon, apart from its subtle flavour, is its ability to season in place of salt which makes it very useful for those suffering from heart problems or obesity. This was appreciated very early on: a sixteenth-century botanist, Ruellius, said that ‘it is one of the most agreeable of salads, which requires neither salt nor vinegar, for it possesses the taste of these two condiments.’