As with many herbs, the History of Tarragon (right down to its name origins) is somewhat uncertain. Much of the information that exists is anecdotal, or passed down by oral tradition.
Tarragon – Name Origins
Tarragons Botanical name is Artemesia Dracunculus (French Tarragon), Artemesia Dracunculoides (False Tarragon or Russian Tarragon). The genus Artemesia derives from the Greek word “Artemis”. Artemis was the Greek goddess of chastity.
It is commonly thought that the name tarragon is derived from the French word “estragon”. There are others that believe that the true origins of the name are derived from the Arabic word “tarkhun”. Both names translate to “little dragon”. This is because the root system of the plant curls around like a dragon’s tail. This is a bit ironic because in the middle ages Tarragon was believed to ward off dragons.
Importation into Europe
Most modern texts on the subject indicate that Tarragon has only really been cultivated for the last 600 years or so. This is perhaps true for Europe in general. However, it is known that the Greeks recorded the use of Tarragon back as far as 500 BC. It was considered as one of the “simples”. The simples were one-remedy herbs that were used by the father of medicine – Hippocrates.
Tarragon, is a native of Mongolia and Siberia. It is thought to have been brought to Italy around the tenth Century by invading Mongols who used it for a multitude of culinary and medicinal purposes. Tarragon is widely believed to have been brought to the westernmost parts of Europe by the Mongols during the 13th century. In stark contrast, there are those that believe that Crusaders who returned from the Middle East brought the herb back with them. It is known that several Arab (and other Middle Eastern nations) used Tarragon for a variety of medicinal purposes, so the idea of “Crusader” intervention certainly may have some merit.
By the 15th century the herb had gained quite a bit of popularity in France and England. So much so that in the 16th century the Tudor family chose to include it in the Royal Garden.
Migration to North America
It is believed that Tarragon was introduced into the United States in the 1800s by settlers travelling there from Europe. At this point, its use was not widespread. This was iterated by one of Americas leading citizens – Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a connoisseur of the herb since he had first encountered French cooking while visiting Paris. When he returned to the U.S., he found it hard to find. Wishing to grow his own supply, he made several inquiries to locate seeds but soon realized that people propagated it from cuttings and root division. Subsequently he was able to source some from a local nursery for planting at Monticello .
A little known fact is that when Jefferson travelled to France he was accompanied by his slave, James Hemmings. Hemmings was brought to that country for the sole purpose of mastering the art of French cooking. In return, Jefferson promised Hemings his freedom once he passed on all that he’d learned to an apprentice at Monticello .
From the 1800’s onward, Tarragon saw a slow but steady increase in the usage and availability in all parts of North America. In North America, interest in French Cuisine exploded in the mid 19th century. This was due in a large part to the publication of Julia Child’s landmark volume “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. Since the cornerstone of so many French staples such as Béarnaise sauce and Fines Herbes is Tarragon, its use too has explodes. It has passed from relative obscurity, to being widely available in supermarkets.
2. Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America