Specialty Crop: Tarragon
Tarragon is an aromatic perennial herb native to Europe, southern Russia, and western Asia. The plant reaches a height of 21/2 to 4 feet and has thin, erect stems, delicate, narrow green leaves, and greenish white flowers.
Tarragon is widely cultivated for its anise-flavored leaves, which are used for seasoning. It is also the source of an aromatic, pungent essential oil called estragon, which can be used as flavoring in pickles and tarragon vinegar. The fresh or dried leaves are used as a culinary seasoning. They are most flavorful and aromatic when used fresh. Tarragon is also used in perfumes, soaps, and cosmetics.
Tarragon grows best in warm, sunny locations on dry soils with good drainage. The plant is intolerant of standing water or poorly drained soils. It grows best at temperatures ranging from 45¡ to 63¡ F, with annual precipitation of 1 to 4 feet and a soil pH of 4.9 to 7.8.
Propagation and care
Tarragon is best started from seedlings, divisions, or cuttings. Take divisions in the early spring as new growth appears. Take cuttings in autumn or late spring. Roots spread laterally rather than vertically, so plants must be cultivated carefully, and mulch must be provided over the winter for frost protection. Plants should be divided every 3 or 4 years to reinvigorate growth and flavor. Plants can be multiplied by dividing the crown clumps. Space root divisions 18 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart. Crowns should be subdivided again after 3 or 4 years.
Tarragon plants rarely produce viable seed. Seeds that are available for sale may be the less-versatile false or Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides), or a more vigorous grower that lacks the aromatic oils of French tarragon (A. dracunculus var. sativa).
Harvesting can begin 6 to 8 weeks after setting out. In summer, harvest the leaves just as the flower buds appear, and continue until late autumn, stopping before the leaves begin to turn yellow. The leaves bruise easily; handle them gently. When the leaves do begin to yellow, cut the plant back to about 3 inches above the ground. Hang harvested stalks in bunches in a warm, dry place out of direct light. The tarragon can be dried, but some color and flavor may be lost.
The successful marketing of fresh herbs requires careful postharvest handling. Temperature is the most important factor. The optimum postharvest temperature, 32¡ F, will allow a shelf life of 3 to 4 weeks; 41¡ F will allow a minimum shelf life of 2 to 3 weeks. Appropriate cooling methods for most herbs include cold rooms, forced-air cooling, and vacuum-cooling. Morning harvest minimizes the need for cooling.
Prevention of excess moisture loss is important. Tarragon can be held in water. Most herbs respond well to high humidity: relative humidity in the packing area, cold rooms, and transport vehicles should be maintained above 95 percent where practical. You can also pack fresh herbs in bags designed to minimize water loss. Maintain constant temperatures and reduce condensation inside the bags to prevent excess moisture and to avoid fungal or bacterial growth. Bags can be ventilated with perforations or fabricated from a polymer that is permeable to water vapor. Young herb tissue is susceptible to ethylene damage. This can be minimized by maintaining recommended temperatures. If water is used during handling, chlorinated water can reduce microbial load. To prevent physical injury to leaves, pack them in rigid clear plastic containers or pillow packs.
French Tarragon Plant SourcesHenry Field's Seed & Nursery
415 N. Burnett, Shenandoah, IA 51602
http://www.henryfields.comNichols Garden Nursery
1190 North Pacific Hwy
Albany, OR 97321
7247 N. Coolville Ridge Rd.
Athens, OH 45701
More Tarragon Information
Cantwell, M., and M. Reid. Postharvest Handling of Fresh Culinary Herbs. Perishables Handling No. 60:2-4. Department of Vegetable Crops, University of California, Davis, CA. 1986.
Joyce, Daryl, Michael Reid, and Philip Katz. Postharvest Handling of Fresh Culinary Herbs. Perishables Handling No. 58:1-4. Department of Vegetable Crops, University of California, Davis, CA. 1986.
Newcomb, Duane, and Karen Newcomb. Organic Gardening Magazine's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA. 1989.
Simon, James, Alena Chadwick, and Lyle Craker. Herbs: An Indexed Bibliography 1971-1980. Archon Books, Hamden, CT. 1984.
Article information prepared by Yvonne Savio and Claudia Myers.