French Tarragon and the Russian Impostor

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

Common Herbs With Weedy Ways

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Don’t let weedy herbs run amok in your garden! Illustration: confessionsofacomposter .blogspot.com

Who doesn’t enjoy fresh herbs, those aromatic plants that add such punch to our meals? Or treat our sniffles or upset stomaches? And they’re never fresher than when we grow them ourselves. That’s why herbs are presently so popular: everyone wants to try them. And most people find them easy to grow… at first. But many herbs have a major downside: they’re moderately to highly invasive and can quickly switch from being useful plants to becoming out-and-out garden thugs.

Two Categories of Weedy Herbs

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Borage is an easy-to-grow annual herb… perhaps too easy to grow, as it can self-sow so abundantly that it becomes a weed. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There are two categories of potentially weedy herbs: those that produce creeping rhizomes or stolons (or sprout from broken pieces of root) that head off in all directions, soon producing offsets that surround and overwhelm neighboring plants, and those whose invasive habits are due to self-sowing, giving hordes of babies from the seeds they drop, hordes that can quickly threaten your entire herb garden.

Here is a list of the “main culprits” along with their preferred mode of invasion:

  1. Borage (Borago officinalis): seeds
  2. Caraway (Carum carvi): seeds
  3. Catnip (Nepeta cataria): seeds
  4. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): seeds
  5. Chervil (Cerefolium anthriscus): seeds
  6. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum): seeds

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    Perilla or shish is a popular Chinese herb, but self-sows like the dickens. Photo: User:SB_Johnny, Wikimedia Commons

  7. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale): seeds and root sections
  8. Coriander or cilantro (Coriandrum sativum): seeds
  9. Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita): seeds
  10. Dill (Anethum graveolens): seeds
  11. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): seeds
  12. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium): seeds
  13. Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum): seeds
  14. Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana): root sections
  15. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis): seeds
  16. Mint (Mentha spp.): stolons and creeping stems
  17. Monarde (Monarda didyma): rhizomes
  18. Mustard (Brassica nigra and B. juncea): seeds
  19. Origan (Origanum vulgare): seeds

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    Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides) can become a garden weed. Photo: Cillas, Wikimedia Commons

  20. Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus): rhizomes and seeds
  21. Shisho or perilla (Perilla frutescens): seeds
  22. Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata): seeds
  23. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum): rhizomes
  24. Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare): rhizomes and seeds
  25. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): seeds
  26. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis): seeds

How to Control Weedy Herbs

Weedy or not, several of the herbs presented above are essential to any herb garden. Can you even imagine cooking without thyme, oregano or chives? But fortunately there are ways to grow weedy herbs while limiting their ability to invade. Here are a few:

A. Self-Sowing Herbs

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Harvesting early and often prevents the plant from going to seed. Photo: Veganbaking.net, Wikimedia Commons.

  • Either remove all their flowers or harvest them before any seeds ripen;
  • Apply 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) of your choice of organic mulch (shredded leaves, wood chips, forestry mulch, etc.) throughout the herb garden, completely covering the soil. Seeds will not germinate in mulch-covered soil;
  • Hand pull when plants are still small;
  • Grow them beyond their hardiness zone. For example, fennel is hardy from zone 6 to 9 and can be weedy there if you let it go to seed. However, it won’t be invasive in zones 1 to 5.

B. Herbs With Wandering Rhizomes and Stolons

  • Cultivate them in pots on a deck, patio or balcony: that will nip any spread in the bud;

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    Peppermint (Mentha piperita) grow inside a barrier made of sunken pots.

  • Plant them inside a barrier sunk into the ground. This could simply be a plastic pot or pail with its bottom removed. The barrier should stick up at least 2 inches (5 cm) above the ground as the rhizomes of some plants, such as mint, right will creep right over a barrier that is level with the ground.

 


Don’t hesitate to grow herbs: most are great and very productive plants and you’ll be thrilled with the results. But do take note of the invasive ones. After all, forewarned is forearmed!20170425G confessionsofocomposter.blogspot.com