Tarragon... & cleverly disguised impostors

April 17, 2006

Hello- Daisy Duckworth, I'm hoping especially for your sage (ooh, sorry) herbal wisdom, but others please chime in as well.

I planted tarragon last year- I coulda sworn it was French, but I don't remember where I got it and what the label said. Anyway, used it in cooking last summer and it sure tasted like tarragon, but this spring as I'm beginning to harvest some, well, it doesn't taste at all like tarragon!

So I got snookered, and it isn't real French tarragon, right?

And, is this impostor plant good for anything else but decoration? I don't necessarily want to pull it out (I mean, it isn't the plant's fault that it isn't French tarragon)- but is it worth it to just grow it as a nice looking perennial?

Comments (50)

  • Daisyduckworth

    Tarragon has to be the most mis-labelled herb ever! They'll always tell you it's French Tarragon, but most of the time it'll be Russian Tarragon, and sometimes it'll be Winter Tarragon (Tagetes lucida). It sets my teeth on edge that nurseries can get away with such fraud!

    The thing is, of course, that the Russian and French tarragons do look very similar, and it's not until they become mature that you can really tell the difference. Russian tarragon is taller than the French tarragon, and of course it self-seeds prolifically, while the French tarragon rarely sets seeds. And, with maturity, the Russian tarragon becomes virtually tasteless.

    I can see no excuse for substituting Winter Tarragon, however. It's not even related. But I must say you'd never be really disappointed with its flavour. In my part of the world, it's too hot for French tarragon, so the Winter Tarragon is the only viable alternative, and its flavour is not too far off the Real Thing.

    Keep the plant if you feel sorry for it. But I suspect you might regret your decision to be merciful, because Russian tarragon can quickly become a weed.

    Meantime, do the Very Irate Customer thing at the place you bought it. If customers don't complain about being ripped off with the wrong plant, they'll just continue to do it to others. Actually, it's their suppliers who are really at fault.

    If you know somebody with the Real Thing, ask for a cutting or two.

    And if you find a plant labelled French Tarragon in a nursery, do the taste test. But instead of just relying on the taste itself, wait for the astonishing numbing effect. If you don't get that, don't buy the plant. (You'll get a hint of it with Winter Tarragon, and I think that's an acceptable alternative - as long as it's labelled correctly!)

  • maifleur01

    I had some type of strange tarragon that did not develop a flavor until the new growth was a month old. I knew it was the same plant because I had been so proud I had finally wintered one over. If you haven't removed your plant you may want to keep tasting to see what happens.

  • granite

    Thanks for the description of French tarragon vs the imitators. I've grown a Tarragon for a few years without every using it in anything. (OK, ok, I admit....I am a plant collector). I tasted a leaf of my tarragon today...nice anise flavor....and picked some to go in the salad for tonight. My hubby raved about the salad. It had our new fresh lettuces (red freckled, buttercrunch, salad bowl, red sails, boston bib) as well as spinach and swiss chard. YUM. I'm pleased to use the herb now!

  • bluesgarden

    I must be a fool. I planted artemisia redowski. yes from seed. I did not know french tarragon does not seed. I feel the perfect fool. So should I plant these seedlings just to see how they do but in another area of the garden? I am off to Shelton Herb Farm tomorrow to buy French Tarragon plants. This stuff I have babbied is not edible correct?

  • ksrogers

    A few years ago, I was given (free) a single sickly plant of French Tarragon from a local summer plant seller, and it appeared to be the real thing, as it did have the 'disinctive' flavor. It grew well all summer (outside) in an 8 inch pot, and when fall came, I moved it back indoors, where it died off. I thought it was a goner, but still lightly watered it through the winter. The next spring, it sprouted about 10 new plant shoots which I seperated and planted half outside next to my greenhouse. Because I didn't know how hardy it was here in Z6, I figured I would leave half in the pot and set that outside during that second summer, along with the directly transplanted ones. Both died back in late fall, so I took the pot back indoors and watered it lightly over the winter. The next spring, it didn't sprout a single shoot, and neither did the ones outside. All were lost. I read someplace that their life cycle is only two years, so I think it is/was a goner and am now looking for another plant for doing the same thing. I did find that Gurneys sells plants at about $5.00 each, and was doing searches elsewhere, with little success. I only hope that the Gurneys plants are really true French tarragon, and not that Russian weed. I never did get to do any tarragon vinegar, even though I found a source for a water clear white balsamic vinegar that would have been an excellent pickling brine for the tarragon stems and leaves.

  • realtorrose

    Gosh, I'm thoroughly confused. I was referred to this site so I'm new here. I absolutely love tarragon and would love to grow some. I live in PA (just outside of Philly). I do have an herb garden but have not found tarragon seeds or plants in our local garden centers. What growning conditions are required for this herb. After reading all the posts I do know that I need French Tarragon and it sounds like I must find a cutting or a plant and not waste my time with seeds:( I find tarragon expensive buying it in the super market. I love the anise flavor. Any suggestions as to where I can get a cutting or plant.

  • maifleur01

    In my area nurseries do not put out their plants until after the first of April. I understand that this year because so many have lost their stock because of freezes the first part of April the stock date will be April 15. You may be able to locate some after the spring stocking.

    I do go to nurseries that have herbs all year but find that having over wintered plants have a habit of doing poorly I try to wait.

  • simplemary

    Look for the Latin name!! French tarragon (the good, anisey stuff) is Artemisia dracunculus SATIVA, Russian is A.d.dracunculoides. Richters Herbs out of Canada sells the French in plant form & the Russian via seeds, but disclaims the latter!

    My tarragon overwintered in a pot on my SE-facing patio & is already about 2" high. Our last frost date here isn't until May, so we'll see how it does....

  • ksrogers

    True FRENCH tarragon has no seeds, and cannot be grown from seeds. Mexican or other types are poor excuses for teh full flavored Frecnh Thyme. I bought some from Richters as plants. I only hope it will show up this spring. I still wish that old potted one was still growing, but I seem to have trouble with it usually after a single year of vigorous growth. If you do find Tarragon at a nursery or places like Home Depot or Lowes, you usually get the very poor substitutes. Pinch off a leaf and smell it. If its got a faint odor, its probably the Mexican, which isn't worth growing.

    What are you confused by??

  • realtorrose

    Actually you all have helped my understand tarragon and the difference between true French and imposters. I now know that I will not be looking for seeds but plants. Now, next questions, when I purchase the plant, should I plant it outside in my herb garden or in a pot outside. When should I bring it in for the winter and what care does it need during the winter. It sounds like they really do not last too many years.

  • ksrogers

    Buy two, keep one indoors and one outside. I was impressed when my indoor one died out in fall and then sent up many new shoots the following spring. Its not as winter hardy outside in winter time. Even if indoors they do tend to die out in fall, but continue to water them lightly and they should return in spring.

  • coing

    Realtorrose, I grow tarragon in Philadelpia without any problem. You will find it in the various Spring herb sales aroung our area, and soon the nurseries will start selling all kinds of herb plants. It's generally not difficult to get French tarragon, just don't trust the label, taste it.
    Look in the better quality nurseries or herb club plant sales.

    Do you know about the Wired Gardener? It's a PHS service that will notify you of all the plant sales, lectures, and other events in the area.

  • realtorrose

    Hey thanks coing, glad to hear you are growing it here in Philadelphia. How do I get on the Wired Gardener list? My husband and I usually take a trip to our favorite nursary in Lancaster for our vegetable plants & flowers. Hopefully they will have it there although I don't remember seeing it. I'll just keep hunting around. Is there a list of herb clubs in our area?

  • maifleur01

    I have linked to one of the national herb societies. Follow the units link to find groups with websites. There is one in PA but I did not open to see where located. Sorry I am lazy this evening.

    As far as tarragon, I went to one of the reputable nurseries this evening. They had three trays of french tarragon. Hardly any of the plants in the tray looked alike. Some had very small leaves, others were large leafed and course stems. I tasted the plants that looked most different and they all tasted like true tarragon. I do not know why they looked so different but they did. All were from the nurseries own green house and handled the same way. Any ideas? I will go back when there is not an open house and talk to the person in charge of the herbs but that may not be for a couple of weeks.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Herb Society

  • cyrus_gardner

    I was fooled. I bought some tarragon seeds from HD and planted them. now I have learned that its no good. Russian tarragon has no aroma and tast. few of my seeding have germinated but what good it is. I will get some real French tarragon plant. Maybe I will buy a bunch from Korean Farmers Market and root them. Again, I have to make sure that they Are French varieties. Mexican maybe ok but not Russian weed stuf

  • ksrogers

    Russian is the same weak substitue as Mexican. Taste is essential and you would pluck a leaf, smell it after rubbing between fingers and then taste. If you know the taste and smell, it should be quite noticable for the real stuff. The seed types are just plain weeds and not worth any effort to grow them. Richters offers these true plants as well as many hundreds of other herbs and seeds.

  • realtorrose

    Cyrus mentioned buying some from a Farmers Market...can you just put it in water? Will is grow roots? Neat idea.

  • promethean_spark

    Reading this thread made me run out and test my tarragon. Definitely anisey and did cause kind of a light numbness, guess it's the real mccoy. It's not very vigorous so I guess that sounds right too.

    One can always buy a pack of fresh herbs from the grocery store and root them. I do that with basil every year since seed basil tends to disappoint me, while rooting basil from the store I can try before I plant.

  • ksrogers

    I never have any problems growing basils from seeds. Some reach over 4 foot tall, and the mammoth type was 5 foot tall with huge dinner plate sized leaves.

  • realtorrose

    If I can't find the 'real' tarragon plant at my local nursary I am going to try and root some. I figure I have nothing to lose. Has anyone figured out why the plants seem to grow so poorly. Wonder if it needs special soil or conditions. I also have not had any problems going basil from seed although rooting it is a good idea.

  • ksrogers

    Tarragon seems to create new plants from its roots. My single plant sent up about eight seperate plants from the same pot after it died back the first fall. I attempted to seperate some of teh new sprouts, but its very hard to do without damaging the rest. It simply died that second fall and never came back again. I think they may have a two year lifespan, and then just die. Last summer I planted some in soil outside and left some in a pot, to overwinter indoors. Forgot to take it in before we had some serious freezes, and I doubt if the plant thats been outside it will return this summer, but I'll be looking for it. Most herb plants do well with just a little slow release nitrogen. Avoid the chemical types which are simply too harsh and affect taste of the herbs. Last summer, the tarragon outside grew to 1 foot long branches.

  • hortster

    Wow. What a thread. I have "the real thing" since I have grown it for three years and it provides strong, real, tarragon flavor in salads and especially in Bernaise sauce. I harvest mine by whacking the fresh, new growth off in early spring and freezing it. This prevents insect and weather damage and provides the best flavor. Start a thread next spring about March 1, 2010 called "Tarragon, Hortster" and I will have it sent to the first three. It is growing too much now to do division. I've got it in my "Outlook" so that I remember. A great herb!

  • coing

    Realtorrose--the wired gardener is at the PHS site.
    Email me (from my member page) and I'll give you a division of my tarragon--it's coming up strong.

  • cindyj_2009

    Well, I've grown all three. A. dracunculus, Russian tarragon has been moved to "the other side of the fence" and is really nice for crafts. I use it in wreaths. Tagetes lucida, Mexican mint marigold, has a nice flavor and pretty flowers. I started both from seed. The A. dracunculus 'Sativa' I have I purchased from a local nursery and have had it in the same spot for three years. The French Tarragon is not as weedy looking as the Russian. I keep mine well-harvested and is doing great.
    I get frustrated with nursery-people who mislabel plants and/or sell invasive species to unsuspecting gardeners, too!

  • ksrogers

    The Local Lowes near here has the tarragon seeds. I can't imagine anyone falling for that scam. Ferry Morse is the seed brand, and there is no mention of its country of origin.

  • novice_2009

    ummm... I fell for that scam. Wanted tarragon for for flavoring vinegars, etc. Had no idea redowski was Russian and had no flavor. Should I scrap my seedlings? Are they totally that worthless? Yes Ferry Morse was the brand.
    Didn't know a lot about tarragon. Now I do. At least I'll have rosemary.

  • ksrogers

    Not really worth much to plant, but if you have the space outside once weather is warmer, you can plant them, but don't expect much taste. Rosemary seeds are very hard to germinate. I usually buy 'primed' rosemary seeds from Johnny's in Maine. These germinate very well, but do not survive our winters here. Starting them now indoors, then planting outdoors in June and picking most of the leaves in September will give you some decent amount that you can dry. I find the rosemary leaves to be quite sticky, and aromatic.

  • realtorrose

    I grabbed some Tarragon from my farmers market this morning and stuck it in water. Anxious to see if it will sprout roots. Thanks coing for offering a cutting. I will email you direct as requested.

  • takadi

    Is there a reason why French tarragon in particular is sterile or so hard to go to seed? It makes me wonder how it could have survived without human intervention

  • fatamorgana2121

    Corn (as in Zea mays) can't survive without human intervention. Thousands of years went into the human selection of traits exhibited by modern corn. Some of those traits also do not permit corn to be grown without the aid of human hands. You may get a few corn plants the next year from dropped ears or seed, but none beyond that. Look to fallow corn fields to evidence that.

    Whatever mutations and traits that made french tarragon desirable were also coupled at some point with sterile flowers. Obviously seed viability was not something required for humans to perpetuate the variety.


  • ksrogers

    My Tarragon plants were bought through Richters. That was last year. Once the fall came, the plant died out, but right now there are many new shoots starting to emerge from the previously dead area. They do spread by their roots. Unless the tarragon you are planning to root from a cutting has very little taste, it may not be the true type. Some time ago, I tried to seperate a clump of tarragon, but should have done it in winter when it was still dorment. If all goes well, my tarragon will sprout up every spring, getting a bigger base mass each year. True French Tarragon has no seeds, and the type sold as seeds is not the true French type.

  • takadi

    I bought a potted french tarragon plant and did a taste test. Tasted astonishingly like thai basil...however, I really didn't notice any tongue numbing effect. Also, it doesn't really emit a particularly strong aroma. Perhaps it needs to get older? I bought it from a pretty reputable nursery who claims it's real, but I'm really paranoid

  • ksrogers

    Get it outside where it grows better in sunlight. As we humans get older, our sense of small and taste dimish. I find this affects the seasonings I add to foods. Sometimes taste isn't as strong as I like, so I add more or other means to increase flavor. There was a time when I had good tsate buds, but now, most stuff taste nearly the same, be it a steak, corn, potatoes, herbs, or what have you. I even have difficulty at times when making my salt brine half sour pickles, because I can't seem to get to the exact point of salt and water ratio, and they sometimes end up spoiling and being too soft, or too salty.

  • shapiro

    I garden in Ottawa, Canada and have had real French Tarragon in a full south herb bed for many years without ever loosing it. Here in Canada, we call this Zone 5A but my American friends might consider our zone more like 4. The easiest way to use tarragon is to buy a bottle of plain white wine vinegar or rice vinegar and put a few young stalks (washed) in the bottle. A few weeks later, you have delicious tarragon vinegar. Takes about 5 minutes and a great gift for your gourmet cook friends.

  • ksrogers

    Also, a white balsamic vinegar is a great one to flavor too. Here, Trader Joes store chain had some nice clear white balsamic wine vinegar. Probabaly not the best taste, but with a few springs of tarragon, it makes a great flavor. Be sure to refrigerate after its allowed to sit at room temp a couple of days. It will keep a better that way. Tarragon in Hollandaise sauce..

  • sulablue

    Has anyone had any experience with "Texas Tarragon?" I haven't had much experience at all with growing herbs, and bought this somewhat on a whim, not realizing that there was such a huge difference from one tarragon to the next. I haven't yet even plucked a leaf off to taste it.

    In truth, I bought it partially for the pretty yellow flowers it was sporting to help dress up my herb pots more than just the taste of tarragon. Tarragon is an herb I use only rarely, and to date only in its dried form from Penzey's.

  • Daisyduckworth

    Texas Tarragon is Tagetes lucida, also known by any number of names including Winter Tarragon, Mexican Marigold Mint, Mexican Mint Marigold, Mexican Tarragon, Sweet-Scented Marigold, Sweet Marigold, Spanish Tarragon, Root Beer plant, Yerba Anis or Cloud Plant, and goodness knows how many other local names.

    I grow it and use it like French Tarragon because the Real Thing doesn't do well in my subtropical hot climate. It's a very pretty little shrub, and the taste is very similar to that of French Tarragon, so it makes an acceptable substitute. Even here, where winters are very mild, it dies down in winter, but it is one of the first to bounce back in spring. I just chop off all the dead stuff - otherwise I allow the plant to do its own thing. It really is very well behaved.

  • natal

    Like Daisy I live in a hot, humid climate. Spanish tarragon is the only variety I can grow. I have to disagree though on it being well-behaved. It was for the first couple years then it went wild and took up most of the herb bed. Course that was partly my own fault, because the old garden was slated to be redone. I kept a small piece and planted it in a flower/herb bed and I know now to keep it under control.

    Here's a pic of last fall's blooms peeking through a rare Louisiana snowfall.

  • ksrogers

    Never seen any of my tarragon have any flowers here. If it did, its not the true Fremch type. Mine goes dorment in winter and is just now sending up new shoots.

  • natal

    Ksrogers, who said French? That's Spanish tarragon.

  • ksrogers

    Spanish, mexican??? I bet it still has minimal flavor and is just another way to try and sell fake tarragon thats not of the true french type. True tarragon has no flowers or seeds and can only be grown by rooted cuttings.

  • natal

    LOL, well if I could only hand you a piece to taste. I've never seen the Russian variety, but I understand it's supposedly flavorless.

    To be perfectly honest, I'm not a tarragon fan, but I love the gorgeous gold flowers the Spanish variety produces every fall. And for what it's worth, it spreads by runners.

    Here is a link that might be useful: from Johnny's Seeds

  • Daisyduckworth

    Texas/Spanish/Mexican/Winter (etc) Tarragon has quite a pronounced tarragon flavour, and even a hint of the mouth-numbing effect. I find it a very acceptable substitute for the Real Thing.

    I've had mine for years and years, and it has never spread.

  • Elistaria

    Last fall I was given a Tarragon plant as a gift. I had never grown it before, and was surprised when it died back in the winter (I'm in Florida, most of my herbs live through the winter). I didn't know at the time that there were different types of tarragon, but from what I recall of its flavor before it died back, I would have probably guessed that it is French. But now that has come back, it has no scent or flavor at all. It's been growing back for maybe about 2-3 months now, but very slowly.

    Is this an indicator of what type of tarragon it might be? Or am I growing a weed? Right now it's useless as a cooking herb but still looks pretty in my small herb garden.

  • natal

    Xenka, it's probably Russian. French tarragon won't grow in the south. Try to find Spanish tarragon ... also called Mexican mint marigold, Texas tarragon, etc. It'll have the scent/flavor you're looking for and give you beautiful gold blooms end of summer/fall.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Spanish tarragon (Tagetes lucida)

  • ksrogers

    True tarragon will always die out in fall, no matter where its grown. Properly watwered it should sprout new shoots in spring.

  • weedlady

    Ah, common names...Herbalists need to stick to botanical nomenclature! Pay attention to daisyduckworth's info clarifying the "tarragon" that is Tagetes lucida!
    This annual--T. lucida--in my zone 5 climate is, to me, a very acceptable substitute for A. dracunculus sativa. If I get it in early enough, I get flowers in late summer/fall. It'll even survive a light frost or 2.
    But as for successfully overwintering what we all are referring to as the seedless "true French tarragon," it seems to be a fairly short-lived perennial, but will be be more likely to make it in a raised bed rich with compost that will provide excellent drainage, especially in winter. Like lavender, tarragon resents "wet feet" and will not survive winter in wet ground. It also is rather slow to appear in the spring. Hope this helps without being too redundant... CK

  • Rachel Cederborg

    Thanks for confirming that I do have french tarragon! Who wants plants? Mine have been growing like crazy every year here in nesquehoning, pa zone 5-6 for well over 10 years! I "weed out" an obscene amount of plants every year. I have never brought it in-it winters over with no problem. Also have comfrey, mint,lemon balm (Melissa off.), oregano, and some sedum & euphorbia species that are weeds here. Tarragon is happy where even the geraniums say no. Sheltered spot & hades hot. Lavender & rosemary like the same-no soggy feet& slightly acid soil-right next to the roses. Keeps bugs off roses. Just keep chamomile & mint separate & mulch with dead comfrey leaves & weeds in place. It's twice as big now than in this picture -4/26/2015 it was taken. The rhubarb to the right is almost touching it

  • lorikontz

    How I wish I had done some research into buying tarragon plants before I went ahead and bought, then planted what was labeled French Tarragon. This plant, even in a very dry PA summer grew to be almost 6 ft. tall & took over an entire corner of my garden space, crowding out several other plants, including my strawberries! It grew at such a rate that it was next to impossible to maintain. I bought this from a reputable landscape center too! I'd definitely take heed to taste before buying and make doubly sure by asking the purveyor to guarantee what he's selling!

  • newtie

    I am in total disagreement with the few posters , e.g., ksrogers, who knocked Tagetes lucida as a substitute for French tarragon. The French should be so lucky to grow this wonderfully flavored marigold. It is every bit as flavorful as french tarragon . Wonderful to cook with and dries beautifully. Tastes just like real french tarragon but better! Perennial in zones 8 9 and not sure about 7. If you can grow both , forget the French and grow the marigold instead.

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