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French Tarragon and its warmer-climate substitutes -- I have many questions!

 
gardener
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Location: Central Oklahoma (zone 7a)
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OK, so here's my deal with Tarragon.  I want to grow it, for herbal/culinary purposes.  

Here in Zone 7b Central Oklahoma, it's probably too hot and/or windy/dry to grow classic French Tarragon, aka estragon.  So say many sources.  Per Wikipedia, we're talking about Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa.  I still wouldn't mind trying, but nobody sells plants around here for obvious reasons, and given that it's probably doomed, getting plants by mail order seems expensively  ambitious.  But seeds seem unobtainable.  Some sources say that true French Tarragon doesn't make seeds.  Wikipedia says it "seldom produces" flowers or seeds, that when it does produce seeds they are often sterile, but that some plants do produce viable seed.  There's talk that seed, when you can get it, doesn't grow true.  Sources for seed I've found online are wibbly-wobbly about whether the seed is for true French Tarragon or for Russian Tarragon; the vagueness seems deliberate, suggesting that it's the Russian Tarragon seed in truth.  Some sources contradict Wikipedia and say seed for French Tarragon does not exist -- perhaps another way of saying it doesn't grow true.

Russian Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus dracunculoides) seeds are readily available.  Supposedly it's much easier to grow, but "widely considered useless as a culinary herb" (Wikipedia again).  Apparently the flavor is much more mild or "weak" but also somewhat bitterer than French Tarragon.  I will probably grow some for experimental purposes, but I don't think it's going to make me happy.

Then there's Mexican Tarragon (Tagetes lucida), aka Mexican Marigold or Texas Tarragon.  Wikipedia page.  This one is often suggested as a warm-climate alternative to French Tarragon, but authorities differ on how close it truly is in flavor.  It's sold around here by Bonnie's Plants (the Walmart supplier) so I got a pot of it last year and grew it throughout the summer.  It has a pleasant faintly-anise flavor, and was welcome in my herb garden, but it wasn't close to as strong as the tarragon flavors I have encountered in the culinary world.  I found it disappointing overall.  It also just keeled over and died after flowering in August, which I found frustrating in a plant described as perennial.

What's currently frustrating me is that I feel as if, sometime in the past, I found one or more internet sources that described two or three additional, much less common, herbs that one can grow as a tarragon substitute -- at least one of which was supposedly warm-weather tolerant and closer in flavor to the French stuff than Mexican Tarragon is.  But I can't find that page now, if it ever existed outside my imagination.  

I was also surprised not to find a tarragon thread here at Permies, even though many people have mentioned it as present in their herb gardens and food forests.  

So that's what I know.  What I still want to know is:

1) Seed for French Tarragon -- is it really a non-existent myth, or is it a possible thing to obtain?  If so, where?

2) Just how useless is Russian Tarragon?

3) Has anybody had a better experience with Mexican Tarragon than I had?  (Bonnie's/Walmart is not a plant supplier I count on for quality plants!)  Is there maybe some out there with better culinary value than the plant I got?  Are there growing tips/tricks for getting a bit more flavor out of it?

4) What other alternatives to French Tarragon are there?  Or did I just imagine that web page with a fourth and a fifth suggestion for herbs to try?





 
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Here (also 7b but a much different heat zone) French tarragon is NOT HARDY so if we want to keep a tarragon outside all winter it has to be Russian.  Very odd when I look online and see it rated several zones lower on American sites, on British sites they say it may die without winter protection and. I remember it dying in my Mothers garden overwinter in zone 8 on occasion as well, though it normally managed to overwinter there.

I find it strange that it doesn't do well in your summers, most of the tarragon imported to Britain is grown in Tenerife ,Turkey, Israel and Spain all fairly warm and dry countries.

I'm starting to wonder if I am reading about the same plants, or if the American sites are lumping the two together to get such a good winter hardiness.

And Russian tarragon is not that bad it's just people being snobs!
 
Dan Boone
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Skandi Rogers wrote:I find it strange that it doesn't do well in your summers, most of the tarragon imported to Britain is grown in Tenerife ,Turkey, Israel and Spain all fairly warm and dry countries.

I'm starting to wonder if I am reading about the same plants, or if the American sites are lumping the two together to get such a good winter hardiness.

And Russian tarragon is not that bad it's just people being snobs!



I have never been to those places, but I have the impression of them as having what we sometimes call Mediterranean climates -- hot but moderated in their heat extremes by proximity to ocean/sea.  Here in Oklahoma we get a couple of months that, in a normal year, is unrelieved heat and drought.  The sources I'm reading say that French Tarragon doesn't like those conditions.  However, I'd like to try it!

I do feel there's  a lot of conflation and confusion between the French and Russian types.  Which is complicating my Google research, for sure.

I appreciate the feedback on Russian tarragon!  I'm going to be trying it, if only because it's the one I can get seeds for.


Skandi Rogers wrote:Here (also 7b but a much different heat zone) French tarragon is NOT HARDY so if we want to keep a tarragon outside all winter it has to be Russian.  Very odd when I look online and see it rated several zones lower on American sites, on British sites they say it may die without winter protection and. I remember it dying in my Mothers garden overwinter in zone 8 on occasion as well, though it normally managed to overwinter there.



I wonder if it's like that other Mediterranean herb, Rosemary?  Around here it usually dies in winter, but some people report success overwintering established plants it all the way up to 4b or so.  One gardening authority on local radio says it's about moisture; if the Rosemary is growing in perfectly-drained soil and kept dry during winter freezes, it survives, but if it's got wet roots when the ground goes cold, it's done for.  I haven't tested this myself; winter is a fairly wet time and my Rosemary always dies.  But it wouldn't be too hard to give it a well drained spot with a bit of overhead moisture protection.
 
pollinator
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Location: France, Burgundy, parc naturel Morvan
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Hi Dan and Skandi , i'm in france and i haven't come across french terragon seeds which are viable. I've bought the Russian ones online, to see what they would be like and i am disappointed about the taste. As well it's an annual. I'll not be saving seeds.
I grow terragon in pots and it's splitable in two/three/four, i've tried it in full earth, but it didn't really do it. In winter it dies back so i harvest and slow dry all branches in autumn. Just rub the bonedried leaves of the stems between my hands into a bowl and then keep rubbing the leaves. Much richer in taste than the machine dried stuff they sell in supermarkets. Great in apple cider vinegar too. I split in winter/ spring, put in new pots and off they go. I'll keep looking for seed and for a terraragon which can be put in soil, but this will have to do with this variety. If you do find an online source please drop a post. So if you don't want to spend a lot, just get one true french terragon send to you in a pot and start splitting, takes time, but what can you do? Three plants is enough for normal users.
Rosemary loves heat, grows best against a south facing wall and dry feet in winter. I grow my most succesfull one against the wall on the south, have had it for years. Experimenting with hedges now, they're easy to take cuttings from in winter and take a whole year to establish them in a sunny place.
I've got a little topic on rosemary hedge here:

https://permies.com/t/93758/Rosemary-hedge-buxus-moth-ate

Do you know why this thread doesn't show up in my recent topics page on Permies? I'm scanning that daily and would have told you this a month ago, but for some reason i either missed it or the recent topic page doesn't show all the recent topics. If the latter, is there something i can do to change that? Thanks.
 
Dan Boone
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I spent a bit more money than usual this spring in setting up my garden for the pandemic, which means I had a dedicated budget for buying live plants, not something I have historically done.  I decided to solve the unsolvable problem of sourcing French Tarragon by throwing money at it.  First I bought two mail order plants via Amazon that arrived in decent condition (though they were tiny) and then I found an expensive local source for a small starter plant.  

So far, it's surviving in my container garden despite lots of hot weather.  I won't say it's thriving, precisely; the plants are somewhat scraggly.  But it's growing, and it has the "right" Tarragon flavor.  I'm very happy with it.  I have the three different plants in different growing circumstances to see what it wants -- too soon to report which are better.
 
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I've never had any problem with french tarragon in our summers. We generally get at least two months of zero to barely measurable rain. Temperature varies year to year, but it's not uncommon to get four to six weeks straight of 30-35°+ weather. I think that counts as hot and dry pretty for most people.

So far, my tarragon has always died in the winter. I mentioned that at work this year and two of the women I work with stared at me like I'd grown another head. Their tarragon survives our winters just fine and grows like a scraggly weed all year. Our winters can get down to -20°, but don't very often. Many years our cold snap is only about -10°.  We have a lot of freeze thaw cycles, so the ground is often wet. Lots of snow, so the ground isn't frozen much.

I got cuttings from one of the women at work, and it does seem to be french tarragon. I've still got it in a pot for now, but I'll plant it out and see if it comes up in the spring.

I guess that doesn't tell you much, but there it is.
 
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