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Artemisia dracunculus L. 1753
pronounced: ar-tem-IZ-ee-uh drak-UN-koo-luss
(Asteraceae – the daisy family)
common names: Tarragon, French Tarragon, Dragon’s-wort
Artemisia is named for the goddess Artemis in Greek mythology, who so benefitted from a plant of this family that she gave it her own name; dracunculus is Latin for a small serpent, or a little dragon. In the Middle Ages, tarragon was known as tragonia, or by the Greek ταρχων (tarchon). The latter is generally believed to have come from the Arabic: in modern Arabic, the name of the herb is at-tarkhun. The origin of the Arabic name is not clear, but it might originally have been a loan from the Greek, perhaps even from δρακων (drakon), with the name travelling full circle. Apparently, the plant was linked to dragons because of its serpent-like rhizome, and there was a widespread belief that tarragon could not only ward off serpents and dragons, but also cure snakebite.
This culinary herb is native to a wide area of the Northern Hemisphere, from easternmost Europe across central and eastern Asia to India, western North America, and south to northern Mexico. It is quite likely that the North American population may have become naturalized from early human introduction.
Tarragon grows to 120–150 cm tall, with slender branched stems. The leaves are lanceolate, 2–8 cm long and 2–10 mm broad, glossy green, with an entire margin. The flowers are produced in small capitula 2–4 mm in diameter, each capitulum containing up to 40 yellow or greenish yellow flowers. Flowers are seldom seen on this species, although they are common with Russian tarragon, described below. French tarragon is generally considered better for the kitchen, but is difficult to grow from seed. It is better to cultivate it from root division, or to buy seedlings. A perennial, it normally goes dormant in winter. It likes a hot, sunny spot, without excessive watering.
Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides) can be grown from seed, but is much weaker in flavour than the French. However, Russian tarragon is a hardier and more vigorous plant, spreading at the roots and growing over a metre tall. It actually seems to prefer poor soils, and happily tolerates drought and neglect. It is not as strongly aromatic, and lacks the full flavour of the French, but it produces many more leaves that are mild and good in salads. In early spring the young stems can be cooked as an asparagus substitute.
The herb is used to flavour a popular carbonated drink in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Russia and the Ukraine. The drink, named Tarhun, is made out of sugary tarragon concentrate, and is bright green in colour.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 8th October 2016