How to Plant, Grow and Care For Tarragon
Trying to grow tarragon in your garden this season but aren't quite sure where to start? Tarragon makes a fantastic low-maintenance herb that any gardener can add to their garden space. In this article, gardening expert Logan Hailey walks through all you need to know about growing Tarragon, including maintenance and care needs.
Tarragon is a uniquely flavored herb with a distinctively warm, spicy flavor reminiscent of anise. It is most known for its use in making the French aperitif absinthe, but it is also a key ingredient in Russian, Armenian, Hungarian, and Slovenian food. With its attractive bushy growth, fragrant aroma, and so many delicious uses in the kitchen, tarragon is the perfect way to spice up your herb garden.
Scientifically known as Artemisia dracunculus, this sunflower-family perennial is remarkably easy to care for in the garden. With the ability to survive -20°F, this cold-hardy herb is suited for far northern gardeners who want plants that come back every year.
Tarragon is also a superb companion plant that repels pests and attracts beneficial insects when in bloom. It is also deer-resistant and drought-tolerant. Whether you prefer French, Russian, or Mexican tarragon, here is everything you need to know about growing this unique herb.
Tarragon Plant Overview
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Plant Family Asteraceae (Sunflower)
Plant Genus Artemisia
Plant Species dracunculus
Hardiness Zone 3-7
Planting Season Early spring
Plant Maintenance Low
Plant Height 18-36”
Fertility Needs Low
Temperature 40-75°F, tolerates to -20°F in dormancy
Companion Plants Most vegetables
Soil Type Loam, sandy, well-drained
Plant Spacing 24-36”
Watering Needs Moderate
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Lifespan Short-lived perennial (3-4 years)
Pests Few to none
Diseases Downy mildew, powdery mildew, root rot
History and Cultivation
With roots in Eastern Europe, tarragon has been cultivated for around 600 years. In the late Medieval period, it began to gain popularity in French cuisine, where it is now one of the staple fines herbes alongside parsley, chives, and chervil.
You may recognize tarragon in sauces like Bearnaise or aperitif liqueurs like absinthe. The leaves can be sprinkled fresh or dried on fish, poultry, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, and other savory dishes. This herb is also used in Russian and Eastern European cooking to flavor mustard, butter, vinegar, sauces, and beverages.
What is Tarragon?
Tarragon is an aromatic culinary herb and short-lived perennial garden plant. It is fairly woody and has narrow, lance-shaped leaves with a distinctly licorice flavor. Also known as “dragon herb,” the Latin name dracunculus means “little dragon,” referring to the serpentine, twisting plant roots. This herbaceous perennial is cold-hardy, drought-tolerant, and doesn’t mind some neglect.
Thanks to its strong aroma and vibrant yellow flowers, this herb is a phenomenal companion plant and landscape accent in the garden. Tarragon repels pests, attracts beneficial insects, and is an attractive container herb. The plant’s pest-repelling properties predominantly come from a compound called estragole, which also gives fennel and anise hyssop their unmistakable flavors.
While Russian tarragon is the most robust in the garden, the French type is the most flavorful in the kitchen. The three main types of tarragon are:
Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa is the classic culinary herb. It is the most aromatic type with its sweet licorice flavor and traditional uses in European cuisine.
Artemisia dracunculus L. is the most cold-hardy and vigorous species. It is likely a genetic mutation of French tarragon. This type thrives on neglect and doesn’t mind poor soils or drought. However, its flavor is less aromatic, with more bitter and musty notes. It is most commonly used for landscaping or flavoring drinks, cider, and tobacco.
Mexican Mint Tarragon (Texas Tarragon)
Tagetes lucida is an unrelated perennial that is more closely related to marigolds than to true tarragon. However, it has a similar rich licorice flavor to the French type and thrives best in hotter climates. It is the best culinary substitute for gardeners in extreme heat where French tarragon cannot be grown.
Where Does Tarragon Originate?
Tarragon is native to Eastern Europe and Central Asia, including Russia, Siberia, Afghanistan, and Mongolia. Some historians say that invading Mongols were the first to bring it to Western Europe and used it as a breath freshener, seasoning, and sleep-promoting tea.
In the Medieval ages, the herb became popular in French—and to a lesser extent— British cuisines. This cold-hardy plant has naturalized in North America and can grow wild across the United States and its native Eurasia.
Tarragon is easy to propagate by cuttings or root divisions. French tarragon cannot be grown from seed because the flowers are sterile.
However, Russian tarragon is fairly easy to propagate from a seed packet. Ideally, you can begin your herb patch with an established nursery plant or cutting from a friend, then expand the herb’s growth over time via root division.
Most Common: Propagate by Cutting
The most common way to start tarragon is from softwood stem cuttings. These short stems of spring growth are easy to root in water or a soilless medium. Within 4-6 weeks, you can have an abundance of rooted baby herb plants ready to transplant into the soil.
Steps to Grow From Cuttings:
- Start with a strong, healthy mother plant.
- Ensure it is not yet flowering and has abundant fresh, new growth.
- Taking cuttings from juvenile plants or woody, old plants is not recommended.
- Use sharp, sanitized shears, pruners, or a knife to cut 4-8” long sprigs.
- Ensure the stems are not too thick or hard to cut into.
- Each cutting should have lighter green new leaves on top and a supple but mature bottom part of the stem.
- If possible, cut near a node (the point where two leaves intersect with the stem).
- Nodes are “hot spots” for cell division and new growth of roots.
- Strip the bottom 2-4” of leaves from the tarragon stems to make space for new roots to emerge.
- Cut the bottom tip of the sprig to a 45° angle.
- Optionally, dip the stem into a rooting hormone gel or powder.
- Place each cutting into a clear glass of water so the bottom one-third of the stems are submerged.
- You can also plant them in a soilless mix (like sand, peat moss, and vermiculite).
- Be sure that no leaves are submerged in water or soil.
- Place the jar or container in an area with bright, indirect sunlight.
- Change the water once or twice a week, or ensure continuous moisture in the soil medium.
- Keep cuttings at room temperature, around 60-70°F. Avoid excessive heat.
- Within 3-4 weeks, you should start to see young root hairs forming.
- Wait 6-8 weeks for roots to establish fully.
- Gently transplant cuttings to 4” pots and grow as usual until plants are large enough to move outdoors.
If leaves start to turn yellow, the cutting may have failed to root. No worries! Just start over and sanitize carefully.
When waiting for cuttings to take hold, look for signs of new root growth. In water, you will see shoestring roots that are several inches long. In a soil medium, you can give the cuttings a light tug and look for some resistance to indicate that the cuttings have anchored roots in the soil.
Quickest and Easiest: Propagate by Division
If you don’t want to wait for seeds or cuttings, root divisions are the simplest way to propagate perennial herbs. A single-parent plant can yield up to 5 new baby plants to move to other parts of your garden, plant in pots, or give as gifts to your friends. Dividing plants keeps a patch vigorous, flavorful, and lush.
Division is also essential for maintaining healthy plants in containers. When the herb begins to outgrow its pot (typically after a year or two), it’s best to transplant to a larger container or divide it into smaller chunks. If you let French tarragon overgrow its pot, it can lose its flavor and become woody.
The best time to divide tarragon is during the spring, just as you notice new shoots emerging above ground.
To divide your plant:
- When the weather is warming in the spring, choose a mature plant without flowers.
- Use a shovel to dig a circle around the plant about 3-6” wider than the circumference of the canopy.
- Use a garden fork to lift the plant from the ground gently. Be careful not to break or tear many roots.
- Gently shake some soil from the tangle of roots.
- Prune off any areas where roots are not pushing up green new shoots.
- Use sharp, sanitized shears or a knife to cut off portions of roots attached to green new shoots.
- For many small plants, trim each division to fit into a 4” pot.
- Plant the divisions in a soilless mix, just like transplants.
- Keep the green new growth above the soil and water thoroughly until established.
- For 1-2 larger plant divisions, use your shovel to cut the root ball into multiple sections about 4-6” across.
- Transplant these sections to another area of the garden and tend as usual.
Pro Tip: French tarragon roots are known for being brittle and breakable. When dividing the plant, ensure that the soil is fairly moist and use a knife (rather than a shovel or a hoe). The sharp blade will make it easier to collect new plants without damaging the remaining roots.
Russian Tarragon Only: Propagate by Seed
French tarragon produces sterile flowers, which means you cannot grow it from seed. However, Russian tarragon is cheap and easy to grow from seed. Because the plants are so vigorous and less useful in the kitchen, you don’t need to plant many seeds to fulfill your garden needs.
- Start indoors about 6 weeks before the last spring frost.
- Alternatively, direct sow once the danger of frost has passed.
- Sow 0.125” deep (seed very shallowly) in well-drained soil.
- Plant 2-3 seeds per hole and thin to 1 seed per cell after germination.
- Barley covers tarragon seeds. They need light to germinate.
- Russian types germinate best between 60-68°F. Avoid using heating mats or excessive warmth.
- Maintain continuous soil moisture for 1-2 weeks. Germination can take around 14 days.
- When plants have 2-3 sets of true leaves.
- Transplant into 12” or larger containers or plant out in the garden at 18” apart.
In hot climates, use the substitute Mexican Tarragon (a marigold relative) that can handle scorching temperatures better.
The best time to plant this herb is in the spring after the chance of frost has passed. Although the genus is cold-hardy, both French and Russian types must become established before they can brave the chill. Mild weather is ideal for young plants to thrive.
Before planting, amend poorly drained soil with sand, peat moss, and/or compost. French tarragon is especially intolerant of soggy or saturated soil.
Whether you start from cutting, division, or seed, transplanting is a breeze. This “dragon-rooted” plant is very tolerant of transplanting as long as it is planted into well-drained soil after the danger of frost has passed.
- Before planting, check that the cutting or seedling is fully rooted and has robust foliage growth.
- Loosen the soil and make a hole about 2 times the size of the root ball.
- Massage the pot to loosen the roots from the container.
- Grasp the plant at the base of its stem and turn it on its side to remove it from its container.
- Place it in the hole so that the plant remains at the same soil level.
- No leaves or stems should be buried, and no roots should be exposed.
- Gently backfill and thoroughly water it in.
- Water new plants frequently for the first couple of weeks.
Tarragon naturally spreads via underground runners, so the initial plant spacing is important for adequate airflow and root establishment. Avoid overcrowding these plants or overseeding in a small area.
- Space French types at least 24” apart and divide annually as the patch matures.
- Space Russian types about 18” apart and allow it to form a clump.
- Potted tarragon requires at least a 12” pot (5 gallon) to thrive. If the plant begins overgrowing its container, it will lose its flavor. Divide and prune regularly.
How to Grow
Once established, both French and Russian tarragon are easy to grow. This herb is not needy at all and can even thrive on neglect. Overwatering, root rot, and excessive heat are the main reasons these plants fail. But if you optimize the conditions below, this herb will thrive.
Tarragon prefers direct sunlight and plenty of warmth to produce the most flavorful leaves. Be sure to choose a site with 6-8 hours of full sun.
In hotter climates where summer temperatures are consistently above 90°F, choose an area that gets afternoon shade.
In extremely hot climates, avoid growing French tarragon altogether. Instead, try Mexican tarragon. It has a similar flavor but is unrelated to the Artemisia genus.
Overwatering this herb will hinder its growth and reduce the aroma and flavor of the leaves. Like many sunflower relatives, tarragon prefers things on the dryer side. This herb despises overwatering and will not perform well in soggy soil. While new plants need frequent watering, allow mature tarragon to dry out between irrigating.
Follow these general rules of thumb for irrigating tarragon:
- Water new plants every other day during dry weather.
- French tarragon usually needs a light watering every few days during the summer.
- Russian tarragon is highly drought tolerant and only needs light watering every week.
- Container tarragon may need water every 2-3 days in peak season.
- If the upper inch of soil is moist, irrigation is unnecessary.
- Allow the soil to almost dry out before watering again.
Well-drained, warm, and dry soil is ideal for this herb. Aeration is absolutely essential to prevent root rot and encourage a strong flavor.
Generously amend the soil with:
- Horticultural sand
- Peat moss
- Low-nutrient compost (no manure)
The ideal pH is between 6.5 and 7.5, but some reports indicate that tarragon does best in slightly acidic soils.
Climate and Temperature
In general, tarragon loves mildly warm but not hot temperatures. The ideal soil temperatures are between 50° and 77°F, while the perfect air temperatures are 60° to 80°F.
Still, this European native is remarkably cold-hardy. As an herbaceous perennial, it dies back to the ground in freezing weather, which allows the dormant plant to survive down to -20°F. In the spring, it regenerates from its robust root zone and grows back to its full glory. Mulch enhances survival in harsh winters.
Your climate will determine the ideal tarragon type for your garden:
- Best for Extra Cold Climates: Russian tarragon (USDA zones 4-8)
- Best for Mild Climates: French tarragon (USDA zones 4-7)
- Best for Hot Climates: Mexican tarragon (USDA zones 8-11)
Avoid growing French or Russian types in hot or humid southern climates.
This plant generally does not require fertilizer. Like many herbs, too much nitrogen fertility can reduce the aroma and flavor of the leaves. If you have exceptionally poor soil, it’s best to amend beds with compost once or twice per year.
Tarragon doesn’t need much to remain lush and green. The plant is very low-maintenance as long as it has ample drainage and regular moisture during dry periods.
To enhance your harvests, you can prune back plants by about half in the mid-summer. For garden aesthetics, you can also cut back the dead foliage in the fall as the plant moves into dormancy.
In summary, tarragon comes in three main types:
- French: Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa is the most flavorful and best for cooking.
- Russian: Artemisia dracunculus L. is the hardiest plant, but its leaves are less flavorful.
- Mexican Mint (Texas Tarragon): Tagetes lucida is an unrelated plant that tastes like tarragon and thrives in hot climates.
Pests and Diseases
Thanks to its powerful licorice-like aroma, this herb is generally pest-free. However, exceptionally humid or wet conditions can cause disease problems like mildews and rots.
If you see yellow or brownish spots on tarragon leaves and a fluffy gray mold on the underside of the leaves, you’re probably dealing with downy mildew. This fungus affects a range of garden vegetables and herbs. It thrives in cool, humid weather where the spores can germinate and spread.
To prevent it:
- Space plants farther apart.
- Improve air circulation with pruning.
- Avoid overhead sprinkler irrigation.
- Remove all crop debris in the fall.
- Prune away diseased parts and throw them in the trash.
Fungicides are not warranted on these plants. Heavily infected herbs should be removed and replaced in a different location.
A gray or white powdery substance on the leaves is a sure sign of powdery mildew. It may look like your plants have been sprinkled with flour. Portions of the leaves and stems could turn brown and die off.
Like downy mildew, this fungus is spread by wind and water. It may move between other plants (especially cucurbits like cucumbers, melons, and squash).
Control and prevent powdery mildew with the same methods described for downy mildew.
Optionally, spray leaves with a diluted neem solution to heal infected areas.
Soggy, poorly drained soils can quickly rot the roots, leading to:
- Low vigor and slow growth
- Yellow leaves
- Plants that wilt easily (even with moist soil)
- A foul smell from roots
- Mushy roots, when dug up
To prevent root rot, remember to:
- Only water once the upper inches of soil have dried out
- Thoroughly amend heavy soils with sand, peat moss, compost, vermiculite, or perlite
- Avoid watering in rainy or humid seasons
- Broadfork and aerate the soil
- Choose a terra cotta container with a large drainage hole
- Avoid drenching the plant with irrigation
Tarragon is primarily used as a culinary herb and garnish in savory dishes. From meat to fish to sauces, it adds a distinct citrus spiciness with light notes of anise and licorice. It is also used in flavoring beverages like absinthe.
The plant dual-functions as a companion plant for vegetables and herbs in the garden. The strong smell repels pests and Russian tarragon flowers can attract beneficial insects.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why can’t you grow French tarragon from seed?
French tarragon cannot be grown from seed because its flowers are sterile. They do not produce viable seeds. Instead, French tarragon must be propagated by cutting or root division from an established plant.
How long does it take to grow tarragon from seed?
Russian tarragon takes 7 to 14 days to germinate and up to 100 days to mature. Be sure that seeds are sown very shallowly. They need sunlight to germinate. French tarragon cannot be grown from seed because its flowers are sterile.
Whether you love European cooking or want to add a nice aromatic and pest-repellent plant to your garden, tarragon is a laid-back plant that won’t require much effort.
The most important things to remember about growing happy tarragon are:
- Provide the best-drained soil possible.
- Avoid overwatering. Let the upper inches of soil dry out before irrigating.
- Regenerate tarragon clumps once per year by dividing the plants.
- In warm climates, grow French tarragon in partial shade.
- In hot southern areas, opt for Mexican tarragon.