Gardening Herbs Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

French Tarragon and the Russian Impostor

20170427B Hajotthu, WC.jpg
French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa) has greener leaves than Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus dracunculoides). Photo: Hajotthu, Wikimedia Commons

It sounds almost like the title of a spy novel, doesn’t it? Well, there is in fact more than a bit of international intrigue involved when you’re shopping for tarragon for your garden. You’ll need to draw on your investigative skills to make sure you buy the right plant.

There are, in fact, two tarragons on the market: French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa) and Russian tarragon (A. dracunculus dracunculoides, sometimes simply written A. dracunculoides). The two were derived from the same wild plant, but are definitely not equivalent, especially when it comes to cooking.

The Good

20170427E.jpg
Auguste Escoffier’s cookbooks are still widely used.

French tarragon is the aromatic herb made famous by French cuisine. It is one of the four official “fines herbes” recommended by French chef Auguste Escoffier in the early 20th century for use in egg, fish, and chicken dishes, the other three being parsley (Petroselinum crispum), chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and chervil (Anthriscus cerfefolium), a quartet still promoted by chefs of the French persuasion worldwide.

It’s believed that French tarragon was actually selected in Italy some 600 years ago, an extra-flavorful mutation found among wild tarragon, then was spread throughout Europe by monks. It was first mostly used as a medicinal herb before finding a more permanent place as a culinary plant.

French tarragon has a distinctive taste: a very intense mixture of anise and camphor with its own special touch. It’s strong enough that you only need a pinch when cooking. Its lanceolate leaves are medium green and borne on a shrubby-looking plant about 24 to 30 inches (60 to 80 cm) high.

French tarragon rarely blooms and when it does, the flowers are often deformed and any seeds it produces (and there won’t be many) are sterile or nearly sterile. If ever you do get a seed to germinate, the plant won’t have the proper French tarragon taste; it will have reverted to the flavor of wild estragon

That’s why you have to propagate French tarragon vegetatively, by stem cuttings, layering or division.

Over all, it’s a fairly short-lived plant: even under ideal conditions, you need to take cuttings every few years to keep it going. It does best where the winters are mild, yet summers aren’t hot, about hardiness zones 5 to 7, although it may survive in zone 4 if protected. Most people don’t even bother putting efforts into overwintering it: if it’s not alive come spring, they simply buy a new plant.

The Bad

20170427A, Cillas, WC copy.jpg
Russian tarragon (above) is taller, denser and paler green than French tarragon. Plus it blooms heavily. Photo: Cillas.

Russian tarragon is an impostor. It has little taste and is not considered of much use in cooking. It forms a larger plant (up to 5 feet/1.5 m tall) and its foliage is paler green than its cousin’s. It produces an abundance of fertile flowers and sometimes self-sows excessively, just as it may become invasive due to its rhizomes, although quite honestly, it expands quite slowly. It is much hardier than the French tarragon (zone 3, occasionally even zone 2) and will easily survive the winter in most colder climates.

20170427CEN.jpg
The seed pack may or may not warn you that you’re buying Russian sage.

Even though Russian tarragon has little culinary value, it is commonly offered on the market. You’ll find seed packets of tarragon, for example, but they necessarily contain seeds of Russian tarragon, since French tarragon doesn’t produce viable seed. Nursery shelves are sometimes filled with pots of Russian tarragon, because they can grow it inexpensively from seed, which makes it much more profitable than cutting-grown French tarragon.

Curiously, Richters Herbs, one of the world’s largest supplier of herbs, sells both kinds, but begins its description of Russian tarragon with “Not recommended”. One hopes buyers take notice of the warning!

… And the Ugly

Honestly, all tarragons are fairly ugly, or at least, definitely on the less attractive side of the Artemisia genus, which otherwise gives us so many silvery-leaved, ornamental perennials and subshrubs: silver mound (A. schmidtiana), white sage (A. ludoviciana), etc.

How to Buy the Right Tarragon

20170427D.jpg
Abundant flowers usually indicate Russian tarragon.

You can get true French tarragon from all sorts of mail order sources, such as the aforementioned Richters Herbs. And garden centers do carry it. You have to hope the plants are correctly labeled, though, as the two are pretty similar in their youth, although French tarragon is a darker green compared to the pale green of Russian tarragon (you have to see them side by side to really notice the difference). Of course, if the label only says “tarragon”, you’re probably looking at Russian tarragon.

Personally, if in doubt, I wait until nobody is watching, then pull off two or three small leaves and munch on them. If the taste is intense, in fact, out and out bitter, it’s French tarragon. If they have little to no taste, it’s Russian tarragon.

Growing Tarragon

Grow both types of tarragon the same way, in full sun in very well drained—even dry—soil. The substrate doesn’t even need to be very rich (too much nitrogen weakens the leaves’ taste). And be forewarned: Russian tarragon can become invasive.


Now that you’ve discovered tarragon’s dirty little secret, you’ll be able to confidently choose a tarragon plant for your own herb garden.20170427B Hajotthu, WC

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

3 comments on “French Tarragon and the Russian Impostor

  1. Pingback: Herb of the Year 2019: Anise-Hyssop – Laidback Gardener

  2. Our russian tarragon is surprising us as in quality, garden growth and flavor. It permeates out sidewalk (warm and dry) with a smell you can’t quite place. It’s been great so far. Didn’t want you totally dumping on russian sage. I might not like French, as I’ve never tried it, but not big on the full on anise flavor to begin with. Ours has a sagey, floral light kind of flavor that is nice in potato or egg salads, with tuna and peas, all our favorite summer dishes.

    • Granted. The annoying thing, though, is that merchants sell “tarragon” which is actually Russian tarragon to cooks who looking for the anisey French tarragon. Any label should clearly state what plant is it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: